“I’m not surprised that [the older guys] are still playing like this. If you look at the younger players coming through, they aren’t that good really.” Ronnie O’Sullivan was in no mood to mince his words last summer when asked what he thought of snooker’s latest new crop.
“Most would probably do well as half-decent amateurs, but not even that. They are so bad. You have got to lose an arm and a leg to fall outside of the top 50, that’s why we are still hovering around. It is that bad.”
One man out to prove the Rocket wrong is Betfred Masters champion Yan Bingtao. At just 20 years of age he has burst onto the scene recently, and is now ranked 11th in the world following his surprise Masters win. Heading into the tournament he was a 50/1 outsider, yet he beat Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire and defending champion Stuart Bingham, all in deciding frames, on the way to the final, where he overcame the highly-fancied John Higgins 10-8 to claim the £250,000 prize pot.
“I have imagined how I would celebrate it, but at the moment I’m very calm,” said Bingtao after the shock win. “Even though in the last few frames I was not playing well, I didn’t give up.”
It has not been an easy journey thus far for Bingtao, who originates from Shandong province in China. “My first memory of snooker is when I was seven or eight years old, I watched it on TV,” he explained after his Masters success. “I remember it was the World Championship. I literally stayed up all night to watch the match. I never thought I could be a snooker player.”
Having been introduced to the game as a youngster, he made waves in the amatuer game, becoming provincial champion at the age of 12. Then, he bagged his first win against a professional when he was just 13, beating Vinnie Calabrese at the 2013 Yixing Open.
His sharp upward trajectory continued as he became the youngest-ever winner of the World Amatuer Championship at the age of 14 and as a result was given a two-season professional card. However, as he hadn’t completed his education in China, he was unable to obtain a UK Visa, and the card was deferred until he had completed his schooling and would qualify for the correct documentation. In the meantime, he had a crack at the 2015 World Cup alongside Zhou Yuelong in the China B team.
Although they were rank outsiders, the pair won the entire tournament, beating a Scotland side featuring Maguire in the final. Bingtao officially turned pro in 2016, becoming the first person born in the 21st century to do so, and moved to Sheffield to continue his career. However, that wasn’t an easy move for the Chinese teenager.
“I was totally lost and confused when I first came to the UK. I didn’t feel like I was involved in this game, and I could never find where the toilets were in every venue,” he would later explain.
He soon found his bearings. Statement wins over O’Sullivan and Higgins caught the eye, and by the 2019-20 season he was making real inroads. With one quarter-final, four semi-finals and one final under his belt, it was only a matter of time before he picked up his first piece of silverware. But to land a victory in the prestigious Betfred Masters came as a huge shock to the snooker world.
Even five-time world champion O’Sullivan has changed his tune. “Not many 20-year-olds have that kind of maturity,” Ronnie told The Times. “To do it under pressure so young in a big tournament, they don’t come along that often and he is only going to get better. But it’s not a fluke for Yan, we have been waiting for this really from him.
“All great players are good to watch even when they are 15. They already play like top pros. I remember seeing Yan when he was about 14 in China and you’d take notice and think ‘Who is this guy?’ He was a boy, but played snooker like a man.”
The leading light of the next generation, Yan Bingtao has truly come of age.