MrQ UK Championship: Victory for Hossein Vafaei in York could open new markets for snooker
Gone are the days when most players in the game came from snooker clubs in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The current world champion, Luca Brecel, hails from Belgium, while two of the country’s best academies in Sheffield – the Ding Junhui Academy and Victoria’s Academy – are brimming with overseas players.
Ding, 36, was the trailblazer, relocating to the Steel City when he was a teenager, and many aspiring players from China have followed in his footsteps.
The sport already boasts former world champions from Canada and Australia, but victory for Vafaei at the York Barbican would certainly bring a new audience to the sport, raising snooker’s profile in the M iddle East.
The 29-year-old beat Zhang Anda – one of the in-form Chinese cueman based at Victoria’s in Sheffield – 6-4 in Friday’s quarter-final to set-up a semi-final showdown with world No 1 Ronnie O’Sullivan on Saturday.
Twice Vafaei – who won his first world ranking title, beating Mark Williams in the Shoot Out final last year – hauled back Zhang’s early advantage by posting century breaks, then from 4-3 behind he summoned a big finish with consecutive breaks of 106 and 56 confirming the first triple crown semi-final of his career.
“It would be amazing,” said Vafaei, whose talent is no secret in the sport, having won the World Amateur Championship at the age of just 17 back in 2011.
“If I go all the way it is good for the game, it is good for snooker in the Middle East, it is good for all of the players and the snooker market.
"Something would happen after I won and you would have Dubai open, Saudi open and Qatar open. It is going to happen soon I’m sure.
“It is just a matter of time. I am from a different country and I need to learn lots of different things to compete with legends. It is tough to get to that level, but I am getting there.”
Vafaei has vowed there will be no repeat of his kamikaze Crucible break-off when he faces O’Sullivan. Vafaei says he has no regrets about his wild start at the World Championship in April – where he smashed the balls from his first break-off and saw O’Sullivan mop up a clinical 78 – which was a response to perceived disrespect shown by O’Sullivan when he played a similar shot in a match at the German Masters 18 months earlier.
Despite also claiming pre-match that he wanted to “shut” O’Sullivan’s mouth and that the Englishman should retire because he was “not good for the game”, the pair had exited the stage arm in arm after the underdog’s 13-2 humbling.
“The past is the past,” Vafaei insisted on Friday. “I’d been waiting 18 months to do that. I know it was a little bit crazy but I’ve done it. Everything has karma.
“But I just want to respect my hero and have a good friendship with him. Life is too short. I wish him the best of health and I love him.”
Vafaei, who has now racked up six centuries in the last two rounds, heads into their rematch as the form player after an unfocused O’Sullivan almost let a 4-1 lead slip against world No 26 Zhou Yuelong.
O’Sullivan, who had edged through in similar circumstances against Robert Milkins in the previous round, showed his frustration as he missed a succession of easy chances before delivering when it mattered, with a final frame clearance to pink of 122. The 47-year-old is also adamant he bears no ill will towards Vafaei, whom he considered a friend prior to the incident during German Masters qualifying which annoyed the Iranian.
“I didn’t feel disrespected (by Vafaei’s break-off) – not at all,” said O’Sullivan, whose quarter-final win was his 100th in the tournament since he first appeared as a 16-year-old in 1992.
He added: “I’ve done worse – a lot worse. I like Hossein, he’s a fiery character. He doesn’t take no nonsense. That is his character. I like that in someone. He is his own person.”
O’Sullivan looked set for an easy afternoon as Zhou, seemingly paralysed by nerves, looked a shadow of the player who had accounted for both Neil Robertson and John Higgins in previous rounds.
The Chinese player also appeared intent on gifting O’Sullivan the fourth before finally managing to get a frame on the board.
But from a 4-1 advantage O’Sullivan dramatically lost focused, missing a series of simple shots to allow Zhou to pull level twice, before he found just enough to keep his hopes of a record-breaking eighth UK title just about alive.