Ronnie O'Sullivan insists Chinese stars Zhao Xintong and Yan Bingtao are the future of snooker alongside Judd Trump, but insists the duo must improve to match the former world champion.
O'Sullivan, 46, is current world number one and world champion, but continues to bemoan the lack of young talent progressing through the ranks. The Rocket and fellow 'Class of 92' graduates John Higgins and Mark Williams have held permanent residence near the summit of the rankings for the last three decades and the legendary trio all remain in the current top eight.
Meanwhile, Xintong and Bingtao are now the only players inside the coveted top 16 under the age of 30 - a testament to the dominance of experienced players - but also a damming indictment of the dearth of young potential in the game.
The 2019 world champion Trump is the last truly elite British player to come through the ranks after he grabbed the headlines in 2011 in a thrilling run to the Crucible final with a devastating brand of snooker.
World No.2 Trump, 33, continues to lead the younger contingent, but there is less certainty over the identities of the game's next superstars when the powers of O'Sullivan, Williams, Higgins, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby eventually fade.
The Rocket believes Xintong, 25, and Bingtao, 22, can compete with Trump for the biggest honours, but believes Xintong must improve his temperament under pressure to become a serial winner.
“If I were to pick young flagbearers, I will pick players in their 20s, I think Xintong and Bingtao, for sure," O'Sullivan told Eurosport. "They are the two that really want it.
“With Xintong it seems to have finally clicked with him with his practice. I remember going to the academy and he was potting long balls and had his mobile phone on the side and was scrolling through, would then play a few and then back on social media.
"I thought he has no chance unless he sorts that out. He clearly has done. Bingtao is a practice machine and wants to be the best he can be, so it’s those two for me. They are still going to have to get the better of Judd.
"I would imagine he [Xintong] is going to have to improve his game a lot, to learn how to win matches under pressure. Bingtao has a better temperament than Xintong, so he is always going to be up for the fight like (Mark) Selby. Judd is still a young player."
The Chinese duo - who train at Victoria's Snooker academy in Sheffield - are already Triple Crown winners and have both been tipped in snooker circles as future world champions. Bingtao was the Masters winner in 2021, while Xintong was the breakout star of last season with victories at the UK Championship and the German Masters.
"These two [Bingtao and Xintong] are young and I think them three will be the top players once the older guys fade away,” O'Sullivan added. The seven-time world champion was speaking after becoming the latest seeded player to crash out of the Northern Ireland Open with a defeat to David Grace. Only half of the quarter-finalists were top 16 players as shock results reigned in Belfast.