Zhao Xintong and Stephen Maguire will face each other in the second round of the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield.
Zhao Xintong’s season so far
What a memorable campaign it has been for Zhao Xintong, who after years of promising much has finally delivered on the big stage.
Zhao stormed to a magnificent UK Championship glory in December, announcing himself as a genuine contender on the major scene.
The new Chinese number one beat John Higgins, Jack Lisowski, and Barry Hawkins en route to the final in York, where he ultimately overcame Luca Brecel to secure a maiden ranking crown.
Soon after, Zhao reassured everyone that it wasn’t a fluke by romping to glory in the German Masters at the Tempodrom.
A 9-0 whitewash humiliation of friend Yan Bingtao in the final underlined his pedigree to dominate.
But while this season will undoubtedly go down as his breakthrough year, the 25 year-old has struggled in a lot of the other events.
There have been numerous first-round defeats, including at the World Grand Prix, Players Championship, and Tour Championship when he entered each Cazoo Series tournament as the top seed.
Stephen Maguire’s season so far
In contrast to Zhao’s mostly stellar season, the 2021/22 period for Maguire has been nothing short of awful.
Two quarter-final appearances in the Scottish Open and the World Grand Prix in December have been the best the 41 year-old has managed.
Maguire has plummeted down the rankings list to number 40 in the world, a dramatic decline for one of the game’s marquee names.
Still, the Scot came through the qualifying test in Sheffield to continue his streak of featuring at the venue stages every year since 2004.
Yet Maguire’s record at the Crucible is poor for a player of his calibre, with only two appearances in the semi-finals to his name.
What happened in the last 32?
There must have been quite a lot of pressure on Zhao’s shoulders with expectation heightened following his successful season.
Not that you could tell, because he looked cool and composed en route to a 10-2 thrashing of Jamie Clarke in the last 32 – the widest margin of victory by anyone in round one this year.
Zhao compiled a brace of centuries and six additional runs above 50 as he won a match at the Crucible for the first time.
Maguire’s 10-8 triumph against last year’s finalist Shaun Murphy meant that the Scot moves beyond the first-round hurdle for only the third time in ten visits.
Maguire almost let slip a commanding advantage but rallied from 8-7 behind to win the last three frames.
Zhao Xintong and Stephen Maguire have only met each other on one previous occasion, and it was way back in the 2016 UK Championship.
At that time, Zhao was still a teenager and playing his rookie season on the professional circuit.
Maguire won 6-2, but a lot has changed since then and it’s the Chinese competitor who will be the undoubted favourite to progress here.
It’s difficult to look past Zhao on current form, although with three victories under his belt in Sheffield including the qualifiers, Maguire’s on somewhat of a roll.
Zhao won’t have much experience, if any, of playing in three-session fixtures, so it will be interesting to see if that becomes a factor.
A lot, as it usually does, will depend on which Maguire turns up, because on his day he’s almost as good as anyone, but when it’s not his day he can too easily self-explode.
Zhao, on the other hand, looks like a competitor who not only enjoys the biggest stage, but thrives on it.
Prediction: Zhao Xintong 13-10 Stephen Maguire
Thursday, April 21st – 7pm
Friday, April 22nd – 2:30pm
Saturday, April 23rd – 10am
Featured photo credit: WST