Zhao Xintong justified the hype that has been heaped upon his shoulders by completing a 10-5 win over Luca Brecel to claim the UK Championship crown in York.
Stars including Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan have queued up to anoint the Chinese 24-year-old as the next big thing, and the manner of his win over Brecel suggests many more major titles will flow his way.
Zhao’s victory means China currently holds two of three ‘triple crown’ titles, after Yan Bingtao’s Masters triumph last year – and hinted at a seismic shift in the sport’s balance of power.
Zhao and Brecel had contrived to rip up the established order in their respective semi-finals, Brecel firing four centuries in a 6-4 win over Kyren Wilson, while Zhao compiled six breaks in excess of 70 to sink Barry Hawkins.
And it appeared the exhilarating, one-frame snooker looked set to continue as Zhao, world-ranked 26 and never previously beyond the quarter-finals of a ranking event, marked his major final debut with an effortless break of 79.
Brecel, finally fulfilling the potential he first showed as the Crucible’s youngest ever qualifier in 2012, responded immediately with a 133, but it was inevitable that the magnitude of the occasion would begin to have an effect.
Zhao nudged back in front with a 61 but he was beginning to look more unsure on some of his shots, and Brecel took advantage with knocks of 33 and 47 to restore parity for a second time.
The Chinese player capitalised on Brecel’s failure to make the most of his chances as he moved 4-2 ahead, and looked a strong bet to seize control of the final as he neared another half-century with the balls at his mercy in the next.
But a simple missed black let in Brecel to ultimately reduce the deficit again, before Zhao rounded off an occasionally explosive and always intriguing afternoon session with a fine break of 78 to move five from the title at 5-3.
Just as he had at the start of the opening session, Zhao pounced following a Brecel break-off to polish off a break of 87, and a subsequent 120 – after Brecel had the first chance and missed a simple pink – suggested there was no way back for the Belgian.
Zhao was in again in the 11th frame but missed a pink to the middle on 27, and Brecel, under immense pressure, secured the frame with a coolly taken 64 to give himself a glimmer of hope at 7-4.
Brecel failed to punish Zhao for breaking down on 56 in the next as he moved within two frames of victory, but the Belgian did claw back the deficit with a well-taken 81 in the next after Zhao missed a simple red.
Nerves were clearly beginning to fray for the young Chinese player but he edged one frame from victory after benefitting from a tortuous snooker behind the yellow, then wrapped up his historic title in style with a match-winning break of 99.
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