Chinese teenagers following in Ding Junhui’s footsteps to Sheffield

Zhao Xintong: The 19-year-old came close to knocking out Ronnie OSullivan at the English Open in Manchester.
Zhao Xintong: The 19-year-old came close to knocking out Ronnie OSullivan at the English Open in Manchester.
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Three Chinese teenagers based in Sheffield are well on the way to becoming leading snooker stars in years to come, according to veteran potter Nigel Bond.

Clive Tyldesley famously hollered ‘remember the name’ after Wayne Rooney’s breakthrough goal for Everton against Arsenal back in 2002. And remember the name we did.

Zhou Yuelong, Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong might prove to be names a bit trickier to remember, or even to pronounce. Yet these three gifted teenagers could have a major impact on the sporting scene over the next decade.

When Bingtao and Yuelong beat John Higgins and Stephen Maguire 4-1 in the final of snooker’s World Cup last year, aged just 15 and 17 respectively, the astonished Scottish duo could only predict that they had just seen two potential world champions in the making.

Now the two Chinese youngsters, along with 19-year-old Xintong, are based in Sheffield and playing full time on the sport’s professional tour.

Yuelong has climbed rapidly to 43rd in the world rankings having turned pro in 2014.

Bingtao, in his debut season, has scored wins over the likes of Shaun Murphy, Mark Allen and Ali Carter. Xintong is also a rookie and almost knocked Ronnie O’Sullivan out of the recent English Open, making two century breaks but losing 4-3.

At the age of 50, former World Championship finalist Bond has been around snooker long enough to know a prodigy from an also-ran.

“All three can get into the top 16 and win big tournaments,” said Bond, who practises with the Chinese players at the Victoria Snooker Academy in the heart of Sheffield. “I’ve seen the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Mark Williams come through over the years, and these three are up there in terms of their natural talent. Xintong reminds me of a young Judd Trump, the way he just gets down and knocks balls in.

“Bingtao and Yuelong both have a more rounded game, they are slightly more predictable in their shot selection. But all three have huge ability and they also have a strong work ethic and a lot of determination, so when they get success they deserve every bit of it.

“The hardest thing for players coming over from China, especially those so young, is leaving their friends and family behind, 6,000 miles away, and dealing with the language and cultural differences. That’s not easy, I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I’d had to go and live in China at the age of 16.

“But they have settled in well, they live in apartments in the city centre within walking distance of the Academy. There are plenty of shops and restaurants for them to go to so they’re not going stir crazy.”

All three will be competing at the Betway UK Championship in York next week. Bingtao opens up against Stuart Carrington, Yuelong tackles Duane Jones, and Xintong plays Leeds’s David Grace – last year’s Barbican semi-finalist.

“I enjoy playing against them because it has brought my game on, and they are learning from me on the tactical and safety side,” said Bond. “It is competitive practice and I’m always determined to beat the young whipper-snappers.

“I believe that over the next five or 10 years we’ll see more and more Chinese players coming through and moving up the rankings.

“Ding Junhui has blazed a trail by winning big tournaments and he’s probably the most famous sportsman in China.

“I have been to the main Academy in Beijing and it’s incredible, there are so many promising lads there playing snooker all day every day and developing their skills. The grassroots structure in the UK is just not the same.”

Watch snooker’s top stars at the Betway UK Championship at the York Barbican from November 22 to December 4. All-day tickets start at just £11. For details call 0844 854 2757 or visit www.worldsnooker.com/tickets