Chinese potter tipped to become Federer of snooker after UK title win
Amid the avalanche of plaudits for Zhao Xintong over the past week, perhaps the most reverberating praise came from legend of the baize Ronnie O'Sullivan.
"I think he's amazing, I think he's our (Roger) Federer. I've never seen a more talented snooker player," O'Sullivan told the BBC after Zhao had reached the quarterfinals of the UK Championship.
"He could do with maybe tightening up," the six-time world champion added as a caveat, "because when frames go a bit scrappy he looks like he's always going to come off second-best."
By Sunday, Zhao had emphatically answered those concerns, nervelessly beating Belgium's Luca Brecel 10-5 in the final in York to become the second Chinese player this year to capture one of snooker's Triple Crown titles, following Yan Bingtao's Masters triumph in January.
"I'm so happy tonight, it's my dream come true," said Zhao. "I was confident because when I practice I think that I can do anything, so I wanted to be the champion.
"It was the biggest match for me and it was my first time (in a ranking final), so I tried my best," added Zhao. "I feel very, very happy now. I am very excited."
And so is the rest of the snooker world, with Zhao now tipped to succeed where former Chinese No 1 Ding Junhui has so far failed-by becoming China's first ever world champion of the sport.
"He's got the credentials to be the first Chinese world champion," six-time Crucible winner Steve Davis said. "Everyone thought it might be Ding but who is to say Zhao won't be the one to do it?"
After winning the first of his three UK titles, Ding was expected to add the world championship trophy to his collection. However, the closest he has managed was a runner-up finish against Mark Selby in 2016.Now 34 years old, it appears unlikely Ding will improve on that. Yan, 21, has also been mentioned as a potential world champ. However, of the three Chinese stars, Zhao appears best equipped to go all the way in the sport's showpiece.
Blessed with immense break-building power, pinpoint cue-ball control, silky smooth striking, and, perhaps most importantly, calmness under pressure, Zhao has been earmarked for greatness since his junior days.
Three-time world champion Mark Williams recalled how a young Zhao, aged 8 or 9 at the time, rifled off three centuries in an exhibition game against the Welshman.
As a teenager, Zhao claimed the scalps of 1997 world champ Ken Doherty in 2012, as well as Davis the following year. However, despite his prodigious talent, an anticipated rise into the elite ranks did not materialize.
He lost his tour card in the 2017-18 season, and had to come through qualifying school to regain it. He reached his first ranking semifinal at the 2018 China Championship, but again failed to build on that success.
Until last week that is, when Zhao glided around the table to pick off impossible-looking pots with the same grace as Federer commands a tennis court, enchanting the York crowd and a global TV audience with his style and smile.
"The fans have loved Zhao all week," said 1991 world champion John Parrott. "He has such a lovely manner about him. There is a new kid in town."
After flattering to deceive for so long, it seems Zhao is finally ready to take his game to the next level and live up to the hype.
"Since I turned pro in 2016, my goal of winning has never changed. To look back on my journey so far, there were high expectations on me, but I fell down on too many occasions with great opportunities in front of me. This time, I have seized the chance to lift the trophy," Zhao wrote on Weibo.
"This victory means so much to me... I'm just 24 so there's a long way to go. I hope this victory will be like a morning star to me, which will encourage me to charge fearlessly forward."
The victory vaults Zhao up to ninth in the world rankings, and earns him 200,000 pounds ($265,000) in prize money and a place in next month's Masters tournament in London, where the top 16 players will go to battle.
Benefitting from guidance and advice from legends O'Sullivan and Jimmy White, it appears Zhao has figured out how to limit the errors in his game that have previously stymied his progress.
"O'Sullivan has shared a lot of experience with me, and he told me where I need to improve. My shortcoming is defense, and there's still a gap between me and the world's top players. I also need to work more on the details of my game," Zhao told People's Daily.
"The experience at the UK Championship is really valuable to me, and will benefit me in future. I didn't think too much while I was playing. I'm very focused. And I feel I was just so lucky. I have achieved my goal this year and I hope to win more in the future."
Sunday's runner-up Brecel, 26, is also confident more wins are on the way, and hopes both his and Zhao's runs to the UK final signal a new era for the sport, with a new generation of players leading the way.
"I don't think I've seen someone play so good for so long, he just played the same the whole way through and was just amazing," Brecel said.
"I thought at the end he could crumble, but he didn't and just played the same stuff, so hats off to him. He's only 24, he's in the top 10 now and he will stay there until he dies, simple as that.
"It would be good if me, Zhao, Jack Lisowski and Judd Trump were all in the top 16, I think it's good for snooker and exciting."
For now, greatness can wait as Zhao takes a well-earned break-to sing a very apt song. "I will go home and have a good sleep, and maybe tomorrow I will sing karaoke," he said. "I will do the song 'We Are The Champions'."