Phil Haigh ✍️
Zhao Xintong has enjoyed a momentous breakthrough into the upper echelons of snooker over the last year, but while he is aiming for the very top of the sport, he is focusing on keeping the pressure off, for now.
The 25-year-old produced some stunning performances to win the UK Championship and German Masters last season, while picking up his first ever win in a match at the Crucible saw him end the campaign at number six in the world rankings.
Having reached one ranking semi-final before that UK triumph it has been a remarkable boost for the Chinese star as he begins to fulfil the immense talent he has always shown.
Zhao remembers a deciding-frame victory over John Higgins at the UK Championship which massively improved his confidence, while it is another member of the Class of ’92 that is having even more influence on his career.
Ronnie O’Sullivan has chosen to take Zhao under his wing, offering him advice on tap and clearly taking a very keen interest in the Cyclone, as was proved at the Championship League last week as the Rocket watched all three of his matches.
‘He’s a very nice guy and this year he’s really helped me,’ Zhao told Metro.co.uk.
‘In the Championship League he watched my games and he told me where I can be better and where I need to learn. He said I played well, which is very nice.
‘It’s mainly mental help. Before I asked him a question: How can you control the match and make the opponent feel pressure?
‘When I played in the Championship League he said that I have answered the question. If you play well, feel confident, the opponent will feel pressure.’
O’Sullivan is having a profound impact on Zhao as the rising star is focusing more on trying to play in the style of the world champion than thinking about World Championship titles themselves.
A natural, fluent, attacking player of amazing poise, Zhao believes that concentrating on enjoying himself and playing the way he wants will bring titles.
‘Ronnie’s amazing. He’s the top player, a legend, the best player. In the future I want to play like him,’ continued Zhao.
‘I don’t want to think about World Championships, just play like him, enjoy snooker and make people happy.
‘I don’t want to think about titles. I think if you play well, titles are easy. I need to do better. More practice and play better than last year, that’s important for me. If I play well, championships will be no problem.
‘Now is just the start. I need more practice, more tournaments, win more matches and I’ll get more confident.’
Despite not trying to focus on silverware, of course Zhao wants more titles to his name, keen for his amazing last season not to be a flash in the pan.
He is enjoying the limelight and the pressure that has come with his success so far and expects more to come.
‘I don’t want just to win my first titles and none for a few years, I want to win more matches,’ he said.
‘It’s different to before because I want to be world number one and world champion, but I didn’t know how that feels.
‘Now I get it, a little bit, and there’s more pressure. This is normal, I think, and if you want to be famous and successful, you must enjoy it. And I do enjoy it, I’m so happy when everyone knows me.
‘I feel more pressure but I enjoy it now. I don’t know about in the future, maybe I win more titles and there’s more pressure, but now I enjoy it.’
When Zhao is on song he certainly doesn’t look like he feels much pressure with a cue in his hand, floating around the table making break-building look effortless.
It might not be quite as easy for him as it looks, but he believes it is his love of the game that makes it look so simple.
‘Snooker makes me happy, when I play snooker I feel comfortable and confident,’ he said.
‘I think because I play quick, people think I don’t think too much and it’s easy, but it’s not easy.’
China’s number one is a resident of the city most associated with snooker, Sheffield, where he beat Jamie Clarke in the first round at the Crucible this year before falling to Stephen Maguire in the last 16.
Ultimately he left disappointed, but he relished his victory at the sport’s most iconic venue and does not want to see the World Championship moved from snooker’s spiritual and his actual home.
‘I was very happy, I enjoyed it,’ Zhao said of his Crucible experience. ‘I think Sheffield is the best place, best venue, snooker’s home is here and the best tournament must be in Sheffield.
‘I have lived here for six years. I think Sheffield is a nice city. When I go to another city or another country for a week or 10 days, I want to go back to Sheffield. It’s my home.
‘I have friends in Sheffield, it’s nice here. I’ve bought a new apartment near the city centre.’
Also in Sheffield is Zhao’s practice base, Victoria’s Academy, where he plays alongside the likes of Yan Bingtao and Fan Zhengyi.
There has been remarkable success for those three young Chinese stars over the last couple of years and thanks to the atmosphere and set-up at the Sheffield venue, Zhao expects plenty more to come.
‘Victoria’ Academy is very nice, every day we practice here, it’s not too big but it’s very friendly,’ he said. ‘We play each other every day: Bingtao, Fan Zhengyi, Lyu Haotion, the guys from Ukraine, everyone’s very friendly.
‘We help each other. If I play well, they have confidence and think they can do it. Like Bingtao winning the Masters, then I won the UK Championship, it makes us all confident, it’s very nice.
‘They will win more tournaments, everybody here will. Ashley Hugill is better now than before, he played World Championship this year against Neil Robertson, he played really well, he can do it.’
Zhao has done it and he looks set to do much more as he continues to add to his game with relentless practice and the influence of the current world champion.
He mentions pressure a lot, dealing with that and making the right decisions when it strikes is what he sees as the final piece of the jigsaw. If he can do that, the rest of the tour could be in trouble.
‘When you play the top players, you are 50-50 to win the match, but you need to be calm and it’s very difficult. It’s not easy,’ he said.
‘Like Ronnie said, what’s important in snooker is not the snooker, but controlling your heart and your mentality.
‘I just want to enjoy the matches and win every match, but not think too much after that.’
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