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Snooker experts are always on the lookout for the next big star who will dominate the sport. The 80s were all about Cliff Thorburn, Kirk Steven and Steve Davis, the 90s belonged to Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan has been the sport’s main force over the last two decades.

World class

Other players have risen to the top during that time. Most recently, Neil Robertson, Mark Selby and Judd Trump have all earned their “world class” stripes, while elder statesmen such as John Higgins and Mark Williams remain at the cutting edge of the sport.

Ding the pioneer

Back in 2005, when 18-year-old Ding Junhui beat world No. 3, Stephen Hendry, to claim the China Open in front of a TV audience of 110 million, it appeared the sport’s next big star had been found. Ding has since won 14 major ranking titles but has yet to win the sport’s biggest prize. Once a regular contender in the World Championship snooker betting odds, Ding has since slipped down the pecking order and was eliminated at the first-round stage in 2022 by Kyren Wilson, who is now priced at 15.00 to win the tournament. Ding is now ranked #29 in the world after peaking at No. 1 in 2014 and 2015.

Despite his lack of a world title, Ding remains a pioneering figure in the sport. He has blazed a trail for snooker in China and a group of young players have followed in his wake. The sport is now so popular in China that many experts predict that Chinese players will be the dominant force in the coming years.

The next generation

Leading the charge is Zhao Xintong from Xi’an in China’s Shaanxi province. The 25-year-old was inspired by Ding Junhui’s success and burst on the scene just after his idol had achieved world No. 1 status. He turned professional in 2016 and has steadily climbed his way up the rankings with some impressive performances on the tour. That culminated in a UK Championship and German Masters win this season, which lifted him to No. 7 in the world. Except for Kyren Wilson, the players above him in the list (O’Sullivan, Selby, Robertson, Trump, and Higgins) are all legends of the game with 15 world crowns between them. Many believe he can go on to become China’s first world champion.

Hot on the heels of Zhao Xintong is Yan Bingtao. Still aged just 22, he has already broken into the top 16 and looks set to challenge his compatriot in the race to become snooker’s next big star. He already has the honour of being the youngest amateur world champion and is the youngest player to contest a ranking final, having made it to the last two of the 2017 Northern Ireland Open. He has reached at least the semi-finals of 12 events, going on to the final in five and winning two, including the 2021 Masters tournament.

Other Chinese players on the rise include Zhou Yuelong, who has been runner-up in two ranking events; Fan Zhengyi, who beat Ronnie O’Sullivan to claim the 2022 European Masters, aged just 22; and Pang Junxu, the 2021 “Rookie of the Year.” With so much talent already coming through at such young ages, it’s safe to assume that there will be plenty more waiting in the wings. The suggestion that China will dominate the game in the next decade is by no means a far-fetched one.