World Championship: Zhao Xintong in Crucible battle to realise his dream

Zhao Xintong during his match with Stephen Maguire.Zhao Xintong during his match with Stephen Maguire.
Zhao Xintong during his match with Stephen Maguire.
Zhao Xintong arrived at the Betfred World Championship having never even won a match previously at the Crucible.

But such has been the 25-year-old’s stunning form this season – he won his maiden ranking title in York at the UK Championship, quickly followed by the German Masters – that the Chinese potter turned up at the Crucible as the seventh seed.

Not that he had far to come, for Zhao has lived in Sheffield for several years and trains at the nearby Victoria’s Academy.

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Zhao made his Crucible debut back in 2019, but lost to Mark Selby 10-7 in the opening round.

But he ended his wait for a first win in his adopted hometown earlier this week, beating Welshman Jamie Clarke 10-2.

Zhao faced a far sterner challenge in his second-round match, ending the opening sesssion of three trailing 5-3 to Scotland’s Stephen Maguire on Thursday night.

The Chinese potter opened with a 72 break, Maguire replied with a 102 clearance, before scores of 86 and 136 edged Zhao 3-2 in front.

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The gap looked likely to be two frames as Zhao seemed set to pinch the next, after Maguire’s opening 65, with a 44 break before missing the yellow and the Scot, who came through qualifying to reach the Crucible, levelled at 3-3. The 41-year-old then produced clearances of 107 and 80 to take a 5-3 overnight lead.

Many pundits have predicted Zhao could be the first Chinese player to win the World Championship, a viewpoint Clarke would not disagree with.

“He’s just phenomenal, a sensation in our sport,” said Clarke. “He’s a real contender for the title this year. I’ll put my neck on the line and say that I fancy him to win the world title in the next five years if he doesn’t win it this year.

“He’s unbelievable to watch. He floats around the table and acts like the game is easy.

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“When you get to the table after he misses it feels difficult because he’s made it look so easy, it makes you only see problems.”

Like Zhao, Thailand’s Noppon Saengkham trains in Sheffield – at the Ding Junhui Academy – and the world No 38 has double reason to celebrate.

Saengkham – who became a father for the first time this week – beat world No 11 Luca Brecel 10-5 to secure at least £30,000 prize money and a second-round meeting with John Higgins.

The 29-year-old’s wife, back home in Thailand, was due to give birth next month, but went into labour three weeks early on Wednesday to daughter Believe.

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“I’m very happy, my daughter was born yesterday at 7am UK time,” said Saengkham. “I haven’t seen her yet as she is still in the hospital.

“Today I performed very well and tried to enjoy every moment I was at the table. I was surprised about the scoreline but overall, I am very happy. I’ve been to the Crucible three times now. The first time I came here I performed badly because I was very nervous. I could not control my mind and lost 10-4 to Neil Robertson.

“The second time here I won my first ever match in the Crucible, but without out a crowd – so there was less pressure, and I could concentrate more. I had to learn how to play in a rowdy Crucible – learn how to keep control of myself and learn how to enjoy the experience. I felt less pressured when I was out there because of that.”

Judd Trump enjoyed a 10-4 win over Iranian qualifier Hossein Vafaei. “I never play well in the first round here, but normally something clicks as the tournament goes on,” said Trump.

Mark Williams fired three centuries and five further breaks of 50-plus as he established a 7-1 overnight advantage over Jackson Page.

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