English Open: Swiss rookie Ursenbacher making the headlines at Metrodome

Hossein Vafaei, from Iran.
Hossein Vafaei, from Iran.
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If snooker needed a new poster boy to grab the attention of the Olympics hierarchy, rising star Alexander Ursenbacher may be the answer to their prayers.

For the 21-year-old – who whitewashed Michael White 5-0 last night to reach today’s semi-finals of the Dafabet English Open – hails from Switzerland, the home of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The rookie had already knocked out former world champion Shaun Murphy, on his way to the quarter-finals, a feat which even grabbed the headlines away from tennis superstar Roger Federer in his Swiss homeland.

But his impressive win over Welshman White is music to the ears of a sport who want to be included in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

The sport has even set-up the World Snooker Federation near the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, to increase its credibility as a global sport.

“Ursenbacher from Switzerland is a great story for us, we are delighted to see,” said Jason Ferguson, World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) chairman.

“Switzerland is a key part of the world for us.

“Let’s look at the overall development of the sport, the IOC is based in Switzerland – as are many international sports federations, including ours now, which we have just launched.”

European Under-21 champion Ursenbacher will today play Kyren Wilson in the semi-finals, after the latter knocked out Iran’s Hossein Vafaei, another overseas player who has enjoyed an eye-catching week at the Barnsley Metrodome.

Vafaei won the world amateur title, aged just 17, but his progress has been hindered over the years due to visa issues.

The 23-year-old has won many new friends in South Yorkshire with his mature displays – he had earlier edged out former world champion Stuart Bingham – but Iran’s first professional snooker player came up against a determined Wilson, 25, who won their quarter-final showdown 5-3.

The Metrodome has had a cosmopolitan feel, with nine different nationalities making up the last 16, including players from India, Thailand and China.

“For me, as someone who has been at the head of development internationally, it’s not come as a surprise,” said Ferguson. “Snooker is booming in Iran. Vafaei is a former world amateur champion.

“He has struggled to get a visa to play on the tour, we have been fighting with him to make sure he gets the same opportunities as anybody else in the world.

“Iran is a country that we want to work closely with in developing our sport.

“No longer is it just England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and a little bit of Asia. India is another country with great potential. It’s now a purely global sport.”

Ferguson believes the influx of overseas talent is the result of several years of hard work, promoting the game – including investing in academies – around the globe.

“We are really excited about the global development of the sport,” he said.

“If we go back seven years, we had six events, predominantly a UK-based sport. This has been the same for many years.

“During snooker’s restructure, we have developed – in terms of our commercial operation through World Snooker – but also as a governing body, the WPBSA, as being very active in the globalisation of the sport.

“From grass roots level to academies, training, coaches, referees the world over. Some of this work now, we are starting to see the benefits. It’s great news to see some new faces coming through.”

But it’s a familiar face, in Ronnie O’Sullivan, the five-times world champion, who remains the man to beat in Barnsley.

Having only played two tournaments since the World Championship in May, the 41-year-old beat Jack Lisowski 5-2 last night.

The world No 55 had knocked out Judd Trump in the previous round, and Lisowski started with an impressive 128 break.

But that was a false dawn, as O’Sullivan reeled off breaks of 64 and 125 to take a 3-1 interval lead.

The 41-year-old then used his experience to edge a tactical battle in frame five, before Lisowski cut the deficit with a 66 break, but O’Sullivan was not to be denied.

O’Sullivan will face Scotland’s Anthony McGill today, after he ousted former world champion Neil Robertson 5-3.