Si Jiahui: How bad-tempered child prodigy became snooker’s serene sensation

His father trained him for 13 hours a day. Now Si Jiahui is closing in on the final of the World Snooker Championship in a bid to be the sport’s youngest ever champion

Lawrence Ostlere
Friday 28 April 2023 15:47 BST
Related video: Protester covers snooker table in orange powder during World Championships

Over the past two weeks Si Jiahui has calmly despatched his opponents one by one – first the 2005 world champion Shaun Murphy, then the 13th seed Robert Milkins, before knocking out Scotland’s Anthony McGill in the quarter-finals – like the world’s most serene assassin. The 20-year-old has produced an extraordinary Crucible debut to be within reach of the World Championship final, and perhaps the most remarkable part is that he has taken it all in his stride.

But Si wasn’t always this calm. When he was young, his father Si Peijun opened a snooker club in their hometown, Zhuji. The young Jiahui was obsessed, and by 10 years old he could beat just about anyone in the room, with the help of a rest to reach the middle of the table. Yet the game would often frustrate him.

“He trained from nine in the morning until 10 at night by his father,” recalls Roger Leighton, who coached Si as a teenager. “He was a nice, friendly kid, but he had a temper. His father was difficult and put extra pressure on him, like most Chinese fathers do.”

Si Jiahui pictured with his youth coach Roger Leighton
Si Jiahui pictured with his youth coach Roger Leighton (supplied)

Si was 12 when he arrived at Leighton’s Wiraka Billiard Academy in the city of Foshan. He had plenty of raw talent and no little spirit, but his game was in need of refinement. “I worked on his foundation and consistency, and his mental side,” Leighton says. “He was always very determined and gutsy, but he wasn’t as relaxed then as he is now.”

A telling moment came aged 14 when Si beat the man long tipped to deliver China’s first world title, Ding Junhui, in a national tournament, coming back from two frames down to win 3-2. Leighton knew he was working with a special player. “There I saw his focus and determination and I was sure he had a great chance to go far.”

Si moved to the UK aged 16 and earned a place on the professional tour, before dropping back down to the amateur ranks. He joined Victoria’s Academy in Sheffield, a stable of mostly Chinese players with a growing reputation following major victories by Zhao Xintong and Yan Bingtao. The academy is run by former snooker journalist Victoria Shi, who acts as something of a mother figure to her clients, organising their accommodation, travel and highly disciplined practice.

There Si typically works 9am-5pm, a welcome drop in intensity from his father’s regime. “He’s trained much less each day, which seems to have taken some pressure off,” says Leighton. Last year Si won the most prestigious amateur prize, the World Snooker Federation Open, and with that made his second attempt at turning professional.

What has stood out on his first run at the Crucible is the composure of this once combustible character, winning high-pressure deciding frames against both Murphy and McGill. And on top of his temperament, his potting is supreme: his pure cue action has drawn admiration from rivals and former champions alike. “He’s bashed me up a few times before,” said McGill, who has now lost all four matches against the Chinese star. “The pockets could be the same size as the balls and he’d still pot them, he’s that accurate.”

Si Jiahui waits backstage at the Crucible Theatre
Si Jiahui waits backstage at the Crucible Theatre (Getty Images)
Anthony McGill watches on as Si Jiahui takes to the table
Anthony McGill watches on as Si Jiahui takes to the table (PA)

Si has already guaranteed himself £100,000 prize money for reaching the semi-finals and will turn that number into half a million should he go on and win the final this weekend. It is reward for plenty of sacrifice: Si didn’t see his family or girlfriend for three years during the pandemic. After getting knocked out of the Welsh Open in February, a homesick Si flew back to visit them for some vital mental refreshment ahead of the World Championship.

China has been gripped by Si’s feats. His father’s club has become a meeting place for family and friends to watch his matches, which are usually in the small hours of the night. His run comes at a delicate time for the sport, which has seen its expansion into the Chinese market stalled by Covid and is playing out under the shadow of the ongoing match-fixing scandal, in which some of Si’s more famous training partners are embroiled. Snooker could do with a good news story right now.

Si would become the youngest-ever world champion should he prevail, beating Stephen Hendry’s mark of 21 years and 106 days. Ranked 80th in the world coming into qualifying, it is fair to say no one expected him to go this far, least of all Si himself: with each passing win he has had to cancel and rebook a flight back to China. The question now is not when Si flies but whether he will be bringing home the trophy.

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