Sun, 28 Feb 2021

BEIJING, Jan. 21 (Xinhua) -- As Yan Bingtao became snooker's youngest Masters champion since Ronnie O'Sullivan in 1995, British commentators declared: "A star is born!"

After trailing 7-5, the 20-year-old Chinese eventually won 10-8 on Sunday over Scotland's John Higgins for his first Masters title. Yan beat Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire and Stuart Bingham on his way to becoming the first debutant to win the tournament since Mark Selby in 2008, and the second Asian winner of the event after compatriot Ding Junhui lifted the title in 2011.

"He was fantastic, his game is incredible and versatile. Winning the Masters at this age is a brilliant achievement," 45-year-old Higgins said after the final.

Six-time world champion Steve Davis was equally complimentary. "I was impressed with his temperament, his nerve and that was as mature a performance we've seen from a young player since we saw Higgins win here."

Yan keeps on breaking new records. He turned pro at 15, became the youngest-ever ranking event finalist at 17, won his first ranking tournament at 19, and triumphed in the Masters at 20.

THE ROAD OF AN ATHLETE

Born on February 16, 2000 in Zibo, Shandong Province, Yan showed an interest in roadside billiards when he was seven, and soon graduated to snooker.

"When I was eight and a half years old, I took part in the adult eight-ball competition in Shandong and took fifth place. Ever since then, I wanted to be a professional player," Yan said.

Yan's father, a worker in a pharmaceutical factory, quit his job in 2009 to take his son to Beijing for professional training.

"To save money, my father and I rented a room in the suburbs with only a table and a bed. The rent was 280 yuan (about 40 U.S. dollars) a month," Yan said.

The young man had no complaints about their life in Beijing. He was happy with his progress.

Yan's mother, the family's only breadwinner, was diagnosed with rectal cancer in 2013. But Yan did not give up hope. With the help of a local billiards club, Yan kept chasing his dream.

In 2014, Yan got the chance to attend the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association's (WPBSA) academy in Beijing. He was one of the first players and the academy waived his fees. The quality facilities, professional coaches and well-matched partners here greatly improved his ability. The emergence of a star was long in the making.

TALENT ON INTERNATIONAL STAGE

Yan beat Muhammad Sajjad of Pakistan 8-7 in the final of the Amateur World Snooker Championship in India in November 2014 to become the event's youngest champion, allowing him to turn professional.

When Yan returned home with the champion's trophy, his coach Zhang Dongtao cried.

"Bingtao has fulfilled one of my dreams," the coach said emotionally.

Aged 14, Yan also became the youngest winner of the event, beating Zhou Yulong who won it aged 15 in 2013. This win earned him a two-year professional card.

Unlike other players, Yan used to let his emotions get the better of him. "I used to play impatiently. Whenever I made a small mistake, I would not be able to bear it and I couldn't even control my expression, which often affected the rest of the game.''

Yan said he has been trying to give himself a "poker face" without any expression during matches. "I can't let my opponents see that I'm flustered."

A NEW JOURNEY

In 2016, Yan went to the United Kingdom, the home of snooker, to start his professional career.

Yan learned at Victoria's Snooker Academy in Sheffield, just a few hundred meters from the Crucible Theatre, the site of the World Championships. He trained seven hours a day, and learned English as well. "If you don't try, you'll never know what you can do," he said.

In his first professional season, Yan reached 13 ranking tournaments including the World Championships, and reached the last 16 in five of them. Notably, he reached the quarterfinals at the German Masters, breaking the record held by O 'Sullivan as the youngest player to reach a ranking quarterfinals. He defeated world number one Mark Selby 4-1 in the third round of Wales Open on his 17th birthday.

Following his debut, Yan had another successful campaign in the 2017-18 season, beating O'Sullivan, Ricky Walden, Higgins and Robbie Williams in different tournaments, and was ranked 23rd by the end of the season.

FINDING HIS RHYTHM

After being knocked out of the 2018 Northern Ireland Open in the first round, Yan was criticized by fans, and realized it was time to change his game.

Playing more aggressively and with faster strokes only brought him more losses and quarrels with his coach. After switching his approach to the game, Yan eventually reverted back to his old playing style.

He reached one quarterfinal, four semifinals, and one final in the 2019-20 season, defeating Mark Joyce 5-2 in the Riga Masters final to claim his maiden ranking title, and becoming the youngest title winner since Ding Junhui in 2006.

On January 17, in the British town of Milton Keynes, Yan once again proved himself with his focus, resolve and composure.

"He was always chasing John Higgins but he always came back. He's the most hard-working player at my academy," said his agent Victoria Shi, who runs the Sheffield academy. "He showed how strong his mindset is, how much he wants to win, that's the difference. I have never seen a kid like him."

When Yan potted the final red to kill the game off, he smiled and knew he had won. His favorite trophy is the crystal one of the Masters.

Before the final, he said that he was content with the chance to take a photo with the trophy. Maybe it is such a temperament that makes him what he is today. Now that he has the Masters title in his arms, he can have his photo taken any way he wants.

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