Yan Bingtao beats John Higgins to win Masters title

By Shamoon HafezBBC Sport

Yan Bingtao's superb fightback stunned John Higgins as he became the youngest Masters champion in 26 years.

China's Yan was making his Masters debut and at the age of 20 is a year older than Ronnie O'Sullivan was when he became the youngest champion by beating Higgins in the 1995 final.

It was world number 11 Yan's first major title, adding to the Riga Open ranking event that he won last season.

Higgins led 5-3 and 7-5 but Yan won five of the next six to triumph 10-8.

The Sheffield-based player lifted the Paul Hunter trophy and took home a hefty £250,000 in prize money - the biggest payday of his highly promising career.

The first Masters final without spectators in attendance delivered a classic encounter, with the tournament being played behind closed doors at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I am very excited," said Yan. "I have imagined how I would celebrate but I am very calm, even though in the last few frames I was not playing very well. But I did not give up."

Higgins added: "It is a great achievement winning it at such a young age. I have played him the last few years. He has not much to learn in the tactical department and he is scoring as well now.

"He was fantastic. He has such an incredible all round game.

"He could be a world champion without a shadow of a doubt, so China is very lucky to have Yan."

A star is born

Yan Bingtao
Yan Bingtao was part of the China team that beat John Higgins' Scotland in the 2015 World Cup final

Higgins will have seen Yan's potential up close in 2015 when as a 15-year-old, he - along with China team-mate Zhou Yuelong - beat the Scot and partner Stephen Maguire in the World Cup final.

At this tournament, he was a 50-1 outsider and looked like coming up short in his first Triple Crown final. However, the unruffled Yan is an undoubted star in the making, having edged three matches by a 6-5 scoreline in previous rounds.

Ding Junhui has been China's undisputed number one player since breaking onto the scene in 2005, but that tag is now under real threat from Yan, who kept himself together under immense pressure to defeat one of snooker's all-time greats and emulate Ding, who won this title in 2012.

In 2017, he came agonisingly close to becoming the youngest winner of a ranking event but was edged 9-8 in the Northern Ireland Open final by Mark Williams.

Possessing a solid and unspectacular style of play, Yan displayed some naive shot selection at times in the opening session, but his calm demeanour never changes and he recovered to shock the heavy pre-match favourite.

Rejuvenated Higgins falls short

World number six Higgins fell just short of a remarkable turnaround for a player who was "seriously" considering retirement because of a lack of motivation in 2018.

The 'Wizard of Wishaw' had been written off, many feeling his best years were behind him having last won a Triple Crown final 10 years ago when he claimed the fourth of his world titles.

Despite a packed calendar, it has been three years since he last won a ranking event. Changes to his preparation for this invitational event, as well as a tweak to his cue action, helped him to reach the final, where he has now suffered defeat three times.

The 45-year-old, a winner in 1999 and 2006, was back to his high-scoring best in the quarter-final victory over world champion Ronnie O'Sullivan and edged past Englishman David Gilbert in the semi-final.

But Higgins knows this is an opportunity missed to win a third Masters.

"I had chances I should have gone 6-3 in front," he said. "I am sick. I should have been in control to go 8-5 in front and I had a couple of chances in the last frame there. I am gutted but every credit to him. Congratulations to Yan."

Analysis - 'Mature performance from Yan'

1991 world champion John Parrott on BBC Two: "It's an unbelievable achievement for a 20-year-old to come here and win. He was brilliant and from 7-5 behind it's a thoroughly deserved victory.

"The last 20-year-old to have such an all-round game like this is John Higgins.

"You need talent but his temperament is bullet-proof. To be that age and to be so calm and composed when playing for one of our biggest trophies is magnificent."

Six-time world champion Steve Davis: "Even though there was no crowd, the tension can arrive on a snooker table between two players, the pressures are still there. You have to pot the balls and put the last one in to kill off frames.

"We see it so often that players bottle it under pressure but fantastic for Yan, he played so well.

"There will be millions of people watching back in China who will know he has a chance at the World Championship coming up.

"I was impressed with his temperament, his nerve and that was as mature a performance we've seen since we saw John Higgins win here."

The story of the match

Yan started confidently with a break of 66 in his first major final but Higgins replied with scores of 63, 98 and 52 for a 5-3 advantage after the first session.

The evening session started in dramatic fashion - Higgins making a 67 break in the ninth frame which was superbly matched by Yan to force a re-spotted black, which he cut in after staying cool in the safety battle.

Yan's 76 in the next levelled the contest but Higgins made 74 and 116 to re-establish his two-frame advantage.

The youngster pinched two frames on the black, in between a 103 break to go 8-7 ahead. Higgins halted the slide with 63 but Yan's 70 and 64 gave him a famous victory.

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