THE wildcards used in China are not popular with tour players – but one wildcard in particular, Zhao Xintong, is forging a reputation for being the man to avoid at all costs.
The 17-year-old from Shenzhen in Guangdong province did it again at the Shanghai Masters, the last match to finish on Wednesday night as he edged a thriller 5-4 against Marco Fu.
Zhao has been given 11 wildcard chances over the past three seasons, beating Ken Doherty as a 15-year-old at the International Championship in Chengdu in 2012.
And from those 11 opportunities he has won his first match seven times, progressing to the last 16 on three occasions including this latest success. Zhao beat Matt Selt in his first match here.
A clash with Ireland’s Fergal O’Brien does not entirely rule out a passage into the quarter-finals, something last achieved by a Chinese wildcard by Lyu Haotian in Chengdu two years ago.
Ding Junhui, of course, went the whole way in the 2005 China Open, taking full advantage of his good fortune to surf a wave of home fervour and claim a first ranking title by beating Stephen Hendry in the final.
But since then no other Chinese wildcard has won three matches in the country to reach the last eight. Lyu, in 2012, had a bye when Ronnie O’Sullivan withdrew.
Most observers thought that Zhao and Yan Bingtao looked the pick of the crop of eight at this year’s Shanghai Masters. Yan fell to Graeme Dott in the last 32 earlier on Wednesday after beating Liang Wenbo.
And the circumstances in which Zhao saw off the 36-year-old world No8 Fu showed great composure. Having led 4-2 but been pegged back, Zhao leapt on a missed match-ball blue and cleared up with 64 to win the match on the black.
The youngster even admitted afterwards that his one-point winning margin in the decider was more by luck than design, having failed to calculate properly and almost taken the pink rather then the black on more than one occasion.
Zhao could have been in Q School in the summer - but visa and schedule issues prevented that.
There seemed some confusion initially over whether he was eligible or not for any prize money at the event.
Organisers claimed he would get nothing as a non-tour player who had not qualified but the Chinese media were reporting that from the second round onwards he would get half of the money.
Either way, Zhao seemed genuine when he insisted: “I am not playing this tournament for the money, just for the experience. I don’t care about it.
“Marco is a great player and I was very surprised when he missed the blue, that was my bit of luck but I kept cool and to win on the black was amazing.
“I am very happy but I want to go further in the draw. I played well in the match today.”
Fu, a vastly experienced winner of two ranking events, said: “To be honest I thought that I was going to lose 5-1 or 5-2 at one stage – so I was pleased to get back to 4-4.
“But having got there and especially got a lead and a winning position I am very disappointed not to have won – but he played well and it was a great last break, he held himself together.”
Photograph courtesy of World Snooker