UK Championship: Zhao Xintong crowned champion in York

Zhao Xintong reflected on his stunning UK Championship triumph with three little words: ‘I love York’.

Zhao Xintong kisses the trophy.
Zhao Xintong kisses the trophy.

It was quite apt, for over the last 10 days, the sporting world has fallen head over heels for this unassuming 24-year-old who breezed through the field at the York Barbican, capping it off with a clinical 10-5 rout of Belgium’s Luca Brecel in Sunday night’s final.

Stars including Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan have queued up to anoint the Chinese rookie as the next big thing, and the manner of his win over Brecel suggests many more major titles will flow his way.

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“I am just so happy,” said Zhao, who is based in Sheffield, and trains at the city’s Vic Snooker Academy. “It was an exciting night tonight and I love York.

Zhao Xintong lifts the trophy after winning the final of the Cazoo UK Championship at the York Barbican. Pictures: PA

“It was the biggest match for me and it was my first time, so I tried my best because it was Luca. I feel very, very happy now. I am very excited.

“The UK Championship is a snooker theatre of dreams.”

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.

Although Zhao revealed his more immediate concern was to celebrate his historic triumph with a karaoke party back at his home in Sheffield.

Zhao Xintong in action in York.

“I will go home and have a good sleep, and maybe tomorrow I will sing karaoke,” said Zhao. “I will do the song ‘We Are The Champions’.”

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 Xintong embraces Luca Brecel after the Cazoo UK Championship final.

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.

Zhao revealed he had endured a troubled night’s sleep prior to the final – not that you would have noticed with his performance in front of the Barbican crowd – having not wished to tempt fate by booking an additional night in a hotel prior to his thumping win over Hawkins.

“I found a great hotel (in the end),” said Zhao, who became the fourth player from mainland China to win a ranking title, joining Ding Junhui, Liang Wenbo and Yan Bingtao.

“I didn’t want to make myself nervous, so I didn’t book the hotel – because if I had lost, I could have gone to Sheffield and had karaoke yesterday.”

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.

“Zhao just didn’t give me a chance really,” said Brecel. “I think he potted three times off my break-off and made 80, 90 breaks.

“You would think at the end he would crumble but he didn’t, he just played the same stuff.

“If you make mistakes in a final it is disappointing but this time there was nothing I could do.”

Brecel added: “He’s only 24, he’s in the top eight now and 
he’s going to stay there until he dies.”