The performance of rookies Aaron Hill, Pang Junxu and Peter Devlin at the BetVictor European Masters was an indication that a new generation of exciting young players is on the rise.
Yan Bingtao, age 20, has climbed to 12th in the world. Can others in his age group follow him into the top 16?
Currently, Yan Bingtao is the only player among the top 23 in the world rankings aged under the age of 28, while the majority of tournaments are won by players in their 30s and 40s.
Every sport needs new talent to rise to stardom, in the way Judd Trump has done over the past decade. And with a multitude of promising potters emerging in the amateur and professional ranks, there are signs that the tide could be turning in their favour in the coming years.
Irishman Hill deservedly took the headlines in Milton Keynes with his superb 5-4 win over World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan, and the 18-year-old also knocked out Andy Hicks and Matthew Stevens.
Phil Yates, who has been covering snooker as a journalist and commentator for over 30 years, sees plenty of potential in the young Cork cueman. “Hill looks a very good prospect and I can see him going deep in more tournaments this season,” said Yates. “He scores heavily, he has tactical nous and he looks like the occasion doesn’t faze him.
Devlin, Hill and Pang all reached the last 16 in Milton Keynes
“Peter Devlin was also impressive in the way he finished his 5-4 win over Mark Williams with a century, but in fact in terms of break-building, the most notable performance from a rookie came from Pang Junxu as he made three centuries and ten more breaks over 50 in his four matches, which included a win over Barry Hawkins.
“All three of those players competed in the Championship League the week before and I think that really helped them in terms of getting used to the venue and the conditions.
“We seem to have a high number of very good young players now and by the law of averages, at least one or two should go on to reach the very top.”
Since 2010, snooker has grown massively at professional level, in terms of the number of tournaments and prize money as well as the global audience; some 500 million fans now follow the sport on television. Top stars like Trump, O’Sullivan and Ding Junhui inspire juniors to try to emulate their heroes.
Meanwhile, structures put in place by worldwide governing body the WPBSA can help budding youngsters find clubs, coaches and competitive environments. Snooker could not be more inclusive, as players of any age, ability or gender can compete against each other on an equal footing.
Brian Ochoiski will take on Ronnie O’Sullivan in the first round of the English Open this month
The sport’s popularity in continental Europe has developed rapidly in recent years and now that is reflected in emerging talent, such as Belgium’s Ben Mertens, Ukraine’s Iulian Boiko, Frenchman Brian Ochoiski, Poland’s Antoni Kowalski and Austria’s Florian Nuessle.
“If you had a wish list of three hopes for snooker in terms of up-and-coming players, they would be a top level female player, one from continental Europe, and one from China to follow Ding as a national hero,” said Yates. “And we may well see all of those in the coming years. There is so much money at the top of snooker now that there is a huge incentive for juniors, wherever they live.”
The UK, snooker’s traditional powerhouse, is hardly short on young blood, with the likes of Jackson Page, Louis Heathcote, Joe O’Connor and Elliot Slessor gradually making their way up the rankings, while rookies Sean Maddocks and Jamie Wilson are highly rated.
Yates added: “Sometimes by the time a player gets to 14 or 15 you know he’s going to be a world beater – that was the case with Ronnie O’Sullivan, John Higgins and Judd Trump. Other times, they improve dramatically in their 20s once they get on to the pro tour. Fergal O’Brien, Barry Hawkins and Kyren Wilson are all good examples of that. Even Steve Davis wasn’t that highly rated as an amateur, except inside his own circle. Sometimes, conversely, you see players who look fantastic in their teenage years never make it in the pro game.”
Snooker has a habit of producing fascinating stories, and the dividing line between a successful and failed career can be wafer thin. Each of these players at the crest of the new wave will have their own tale to tell in the years to come.