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13 April 2018

Could Thailand have a World Snooker Champion within the Next 20 Years?

Chris Lincoln (@chrisbourne2win)

Horace Lindrum, Cliff Thorburn and Neil Robertson are the only players outside of United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland to ever win a World Snooker Championship despite the competition running for the best part of a century.

The most sought-after title in the sport that has been dominated by players from England, Scotland and Wales but there could soon be a new area of the globe providing players to add their names to the list of champions – the Far East.

Snooker has exploded in China with Ding Junhui exciting the natives through an impressive career that is still developing. The former world number one has 13 ranking titles to his name and lost a tight World Championship final to Mark Selby in 2016.

The adoration of the sport has developed so much that China is now a regular destination on the snooker calendar. The China Championship, World Open, International Championship, Shanghai Masters and China Open are all ranking events based in various areas of the country. Almost a quarter of the 2018 World Championship qualifying contenders are from the Far East but China is not the only country in Asia excited by their future prospects.

Thailand now have a quartet of players on the tour with the veteran James Wattana proving to be the Ding Junhui of the country. Wattana has been a professional since 1989, peaking in 1994-95 when he reached number three on the world ranking list. Between 1991 and 1995, Wattana won a trio of ranking titles and the 'Thai-Phoon' is still in the top 100 at the age of 48, almost 30 years after making his professional debut.

Perhaps the most exciting talent to potentially follow in Wattana's footsteps is Sunny Akani. At just 22, Sunny has benefitted from several snooker halls developed in his hometown of Bangkok. Despite only being in his second season as a professional, Sunny has reached two ranking quarter-finals and caught the eye of some top players on the circuit. The 2017 UK Championship was a tournament to remember after he thrashed Barry Hawkins before losing a final frame decider in the fourth round to Ronnie O'Sullivan. The Rocket had nothing but compliments for the Thai youngster, claiming he has an exciting future ahead.

Noppon Saengkham is another exciting young talent from Thailand after breaking into the top 50 at the age of 25. Like Sunny, Saengkham has produced the best form of his career this season, reaching the semi-finals of the Welsh Open. The former World Under-21 champion defeated Judd Trump 4-1 and Kyren Wilson 4-0 on his way to the last four before being edged out by Barry Hawkins.

Thepchaiya un-Nooh might be slightly older at 32 but he continues to improve after becoming a regular professional since 2012. Following four ranking semi-finals in three years, Thepchaiya reached the final of the six-red world championship this season. In a tournament where three Thai players reached at least the last 16, Thepchaiya impressed after defeating a host of top names, including Kyren Wilson, Stuart Bingham, Liang Wenbo and Anthony McGill before losing the final to Mark Williams. The top 100 player also joined forces with Saengkham as Thailand reached the semi-finals of the World Cup at the start of the season.

The Thai game also continues to develop at youth level. Boonyarit Keattikun was the World Under-21 champion in 2015 and has since defeated former world champion Ken Doherty. Thanawat Thirapongpaiboon defeated Saengkham in an all-Thailand World Under-21 final and became the youngest player to make a professional 147 break at the age of 16. Only China boast more World Under-21 champions in the last decade after Saengkham lifted the title in 2009.

12 of the top 50 players in the ladies' game are from the Far East with a trio of those from Thailand. Waratthanun Sukritthanes and Siriphaporn Nuanthakhamjan are part of that bracket whilst Nutcharut Wongharuthai currently boasts a place in the top 20.

There is no doubt that snooker in Thailand is enjoying a revolution. With several snooker halls in Bangkok and many more across the country, the boom is only likely to continue. Following impressive seasons for a trio of the top professional talents, the chances of a Thai player becoming world champion in the next two decades only continues to improve.

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