Zhao Xintong launches his UK Championship title defence when he faces Sam Craigie in the opening round at the York Barbican on Saturday.
The Cyclone delighted the York crowd with his exciting brand of attacking snooker as he claimed his maiden ranking title 12 months ago.
Zhao had never previously advanced beyond the last 32 of snooker’s second-most prestigious ranking event. However, he stopped the rot in emphatic fashion by beating the likes of John Higgins and Barry Hawkins, before overcoming Luca Brecel 10-5 in the final to climb into the world’s top 16 for the first time.
The Chinese ace has continued to score well this season, hitting 13 centuries, but he is yet to truly catch fire, with runs to the last 32 at the European Masters and British Open representing his best ranking performances thus far.
Zhao also suffered a Northern Ireland Open first-round defeat against compatriot Lyu Haotian and he will be wary of facing Craigie, who prevailed 10-9 when they last met in the final qualifying round for the 2021 World Championship.
The world number 47 is enjoying his best performance of the season, having beaten Joe O’Connor (6-4) and Ian Burns (6-2) to secure his place in the main draw.
Craigie, whose other notable result of the campaign saw him defeat former Crucible king Graeme Dott to qualify for the English Open, also reached this stage at last year’s tournament.
Having suffered four successive first-round exits, the Newcastle cueist beat Ken Doherty and three-time champion Ding Junhui, and the 28-year-old will be hoping to claim further scalps this year as he aims to reach unchartered territory in York.
The winner of this match will play either Ryan Day or Jimmy White in the UK Championship last 16.
Play gets underway at 1pm GMT on Saturday with the match contested over the best of 11 frames at the York Barbican.
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