As a storm howls over Berlin, we contemplate the first wholly Chinese final of the German Masters.
The afternoon semi-final started off well for Ricky Walden, who had seemed to be the one player in Berlin to find a recipe against 2021 UK champion Zhao Xintong. He looked both confident and at ease, much like on the previous days. This brought him a 3-1 lead at the mid-session interval. The first frame after the intermission brought one of those moments the game can so often dramatically produce: one ball goes ill, and then the whole match turns.
Zhao had allowed Walden onto the table after doing a lot of the initial opening of the balls, and Walden seemed to sail to a three-frame lead. Until the green refused to fall, that is. Zhao gladly took the invitation for a steal and the frame, 63-60. Walden never recovered. He made a total of 41 points afterwards, losing two frames to nil. An overjoyed Zhao Xintong was the first German Masters finalist, a 6-3 winner of the semi, and somewhat uncharacteristically for a Chinese player, he stayed in a visibly jubilant mood for long afterwards.
In between matches, the discussion naturally turned to the question of whether we’d have the first ever purely Chinese final here. Opinions were divided, as Yan Bingtao after all had repeatedly shown this dogged mentality, just refusing to lose. Then again, Mark Allen seemed to be in very fine shape as well. He is rumoured not to be too fond of playing at the outside tables here, and this issue, if it does matter to him, was obviously gone now in the single table setup.
Over dinner I had a chance to chat with Thomas Cesal, boss of the German organizer Dragonstars. He reminisced how it all began with this tournament. Namely with the free day the Holiday on Ice show had during its run in Berlin. Nobody would, one should think, associate such an occasion with snooker of all things. But he and a few pals did, and thus a snooker table was put onto this icy basis, and four great players of the time, the great entertainer Steve Davis among them, came to Berlin for an exhibition.
The success was above all expectations, and this was the seed from which what we now know and love as the German Masters came to bloom. Great merit lies with Brandon Parker, the promoter and snooker manager, without whom the Tempodrom never would have become this spectacular venue for our sport. He is sorely missed after his passing in 2020, and it is more than fitting that the trophy is now named after him.
None other than referee supremo Jan Verhaas presided over the evening session. The players walked in as they did on the first days, saving the “big entrance” through the audience and down the stairs for tomorrow’s final this year. Allen’s confident taking of the first frame was the opener for a somewhat uneven match, both with great long pots and not too few rather unnecessary mistakes. When Verhaas seemed to miss a red ball when setting the table up for frame two, I had a private little moment of nostalgia, when the very same had happened to me during my modest amateur refereeing. Now where is that missing 15th red? As Jan surrounded the table looking for it, Allen coolly indicated it with his cue, producing a little amusement in the audience.
There was no repetition of the pattern of Yan’s previous wins, first getting behind, and then cracking the opponent after it almost seemed hopeless already. This was an even game at first. After a tight third frame for Allen, Yan produced a 116 and it was 2-2 at the intermission.
Only Yan must have spent his break wiser than Allen, as he began to exude dominance after play recommenced. Allen shone once more with a 104 in the seventh frame, but after the following one, it was he who found himself in the position Yan had been in during his previous two matches – at 3-5, he needed a run of three frames to keep his hopes alive. One he did manage, taking the scrappy ninth frame. But in the endgame of frame ten, after repeatedly missing the blue, it was snookers required for the Northern Ireland Open champion. He did manage to lay an incredible snooker for Yan, earning him the missing points immediately. These were moments of palpable suspense in the hall, every stroke producing gasps in the audience, where a respotted black already occupied many minds. But it was not to be, as Allen, who never came across with the same mentality he had shown before the intermission, missed the pink which Yan promptly potted. Shake hands, and the Chinese final was a fact.
So who will follow in the footsteps of Ding Junhui after his 2014 triumph here? As always, your guess is as good as mine. Opinion is totally divided among our little crew of stewards. We hope it will be a good, classy, and exciting final between these two young Chinese stars. And the odds for that seem rather promising.
(First session – 1pm GMT; Second session – 7pm GMT)
Zhao Xintong vs Yan Bingtao
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Featured photo credit: WST