Neal Foulds will be penning a fortnightly column on Sporting Life
Neal Foulds will be penning a fortnightly column on Sporting Life

Neal Foulds snooker column: Eurosport and ITV pundit reflects on Zhao Xintong's UK Championship victory in York

A star is born as Zhao steals the show

I’ve watched an awful lot of snooker over the years, and some matches really do get the pulse racing more than others. I'm not sure I can recall being as excited for a snooker match as I was ahead of Sunday’s UK Championship final. We had a great couple of weeks in York and Sunday’s final was a terrific moment, for the brilliant winner, Zhao Xintong, and for snooker in general.

I really do believe a star was born at the weekend. The UK Championship has changed Zhao, but to my mind, it was the weekend that changed his career forever. I know he beat John Higgins earlier in the tournament and the draw opened him up for him thereafter, but I watched him fall over the line against Peter Lines and you had to wonder just how far he could go. Then came the final weekend and he was sensational, dismantling Barry Hawkins in the semi-finals before overpowering Luca Brecel in the final.

We’ve known for a long time that Zhao has all the ability in the world, but that immense potential was realised this weekend and he’s now UK champion. That’s a big thing. His victory means he’s now in all of the big tournaments coming up and the sky really is the limit for this young man.

His story reminds me a little bit of Shaun Murphy. When Murphy first came onto the scene, everyone involved in snooker knew that he was good, a brilliant cueist and a deadly long potter. But he wasn’t getting the results until the 2005 World Championship when the penny dropped and everything came together. It was the same with Zhao for a while, but through talent, hard work and gaining a little bit more experience, he’s realised his potential on the biggest stage.

Zhao Xintong
Zhao Xintong

I must stress that for all Zhao is clearly a huge talent, he’s worked very hard for this. All through the tournament, he opted not to stay at the venue, but instead head back to Sheffield to practice at the Vic Snooker Academy and ensure his game remained in good order.

Zhao comes back stronger after harsh lessons

I think what this year’s UK Championship has done is once again illustrate that it takes time for snooker players to learn their trade and become complete performers. Judd Trump is the perfect example of that and after he had suffered some hard losses and appeared to be low on confidence, he went away, learnt from those defeats and came back a much better player.

I’ve been saying for a while now that we had lost a generation of snooker players. We had the class of ’92 and then the likes of Trump, Murphy, Mark Selby and Neil Robertson, but the twenty-somethings just weren’t delivering. Now with Zhao and Brecel, they’ve come good and it’s great to see. It would have been a great shame if Zhao hadn’t fulfilled that potential, Brecel too, and I'm thrilled for both of them.

Zhao’s story, in particular, really does warm your heart given the year we’ve just had. Don’t forget that he had to miss the World Championship earlier in the year because of the pandemic and it’s great credit to him that he’s come back so strongly. It was brilliant for snooker and the way he played on Sunday was a treat to watch.

We need these overseas players doing well to help grow the game and inspire future generations, and that’s what this victory will do. We’ve been expecting the Chinese domination for a while now and although we’re not completely there yet, Zhao now holds the UK title while Yan Bingtao is the current Masters champion. That’s two of the Triple Crowns held by Chinese players.

Yan Bingtao celebrates
Yan Bingtao celebrates his Masters win

I dare say the British and Irish players will have something to say about that, but that’s good for the game, too, as they’ve maybe had things a little too easy for a while now. With the Chinese events currently off the calendar, it’s been tough for those lads, but they keep working hard, keep improving and, crucially, many of the young players are finally channelling all that talent into winning matches.

The tournament was really good one from start to finish and it was was so nice to be back in York for the event. As always, Eurosport and the BBC did a fine job with the coverage, for all we had so much excellent snooker and lots of stories to work with. I really can’t think of any negatives and Sunday’s final was the icing on the cake.

Snooker season rolls on with Scottish Open

We quickly move on from York and the Scottish Open has already started as I write this column. Strangely, we’re in Llandudno for this one and while the Scottish sometimes suffers from a UK Championship hangover, for the first few days at least, the event always grows as the week goes on and the latter stages invariably feel as important as many of the other big events.

Selby is defending champion having won the last two renewals, and he needs results to ensure he secures his place in the World Grand Prix the following week. I’m sure he’ll do enough, but as last week demonstrated, there is great depth in snooker nowadays and nobody expects an easy ride.

I’ll be working for Eurosport this week before joining up with the ITV crew for the World Grand Prix. This is another terrific tournament that has benefited from ITV’s growing support for snooker. Trump lifted the title last year and, like Selby, I’ll be fascinated to see his response in the next couple of weeks having watched a new kid on the block steal the limelight in York.

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