History-making teenager Ben Mertens’ journey from hook-a-duck to Crucible dream

Having taken up the sport after winning a toy snooker table on the hook-a-duck stall at his local fair, 15-year-old Ben Mertens has sealed his unlikely place in the record books.

The Belgian became the youngest player to win a qualifying match in the World Snooker Championship when he beat James Cahill, conqueror of Ronnie O’Sullivan in last year’s first round, 6-2 on Wednesday night.

Mertens is set to resume his campaign for the far bigger prize of a place at the Crucible on Friday when he faces world number 77 Sam Baird in the second of four qualifying rounds.

Ben Mertens
Ben Mertens will continue his campaign to reach the Crucible on Friday (Tai Chengzhe)

Mertens’ journey began at the age of eight when he chose a 10cm miniature table as his prize for successfully hooking a duck at the fair in his home town of Wetteren.

His coach Gery de Mol, owner of a marzipan company which sponsors the Belgian tour, said he saw signs of promise as soon as Mertens’ father delivered him for practice sessions.

De Mol told the PA news agency: “He went to the fair and won this tiny table and he was potting every single ball with it.

“I immediately thought, we can make something very special here. He is making 147s every week in practice and I believe when he is on form it is possible for him to beat anyone.”

Mertens and de Mol are riding a surge of interest in the sport in Belgium on the back of the success of Luca Brecel, who is the only player from continental Europe to win a ranking title.

Mertens, who won the world under-16 title at the age of 13 in 2018, teamed up with Brecel in this year’s World Team Cup.

Ben Mertens (aged 15) reminds me of John Parrott at the same age. Raw, talented & with an aggressive streak in his game. Similar cue actions also. If he does half as well as JP he’ll have a great career. Also it’s great to see another Belgian player emerge. #WorldChampionship

— Neal Foulds (@fouldsy147) July 22, 2020

“The reaction I have got from Ben’s win in Belgium has been immense,” added de Mol. “We have so much young talent and a result like this is going to help improve the game of so many young players.”

Mertens is one of a group of rising young talent from Europe including 14-year-old Ukrainian Iulian Boiko, who was beaten in the first round of qualifying on Wednesday, and 16-year-old Pole Antoni Kowalski, who is due to begin his campaign on Thursday.

Mertens, who also beat Adam Stefanow in the first round of the Paul Hunter Classic in his professional tournament debut in August 2018, said: “The World Cup was on the television and that helped me handle the cameras.

“I was always watching Luca when I was young and to now do that by myself on television is amazing. The week doesn’t get any [easier] – of course I hope to win against Sam but I’m already happy.”

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