2021 Northern Ireland Open – SFs

Here are the WST reports on the Northern Ireland Open semi-finals

Mark Allen 6-3 Ricky Walden

Allen Reaches Home Final

Northern Irish number one Mark Allen delighted a passionate Waterfront Hall crowd by beating Ricky Walden 6-3 and reach the BetVictor Northern Ireland Open final.

It’s the first time that 2018 Masters winner Allen has made the title match in his home event on the World Snooker Tour. The Antrim cueman had previously struggled in the Northern Ireland Open, having only reached the quarter-finals on one other occasion back in 2016. Allen has openly admitted to suffering from extra nerves due to competing in Belfast.

Allen now faces either four-time World Champion John Higgins or current Masters champion Yan Bingtao in tomorrow’s final. The will battle it out over the best of 17 frames, with the Alex Higgins Trophy and a top prize of £70,000 on the line. The Pistol is aiming to secure his first ranking event silverware since the 2018 Scottish Open.

Walden can take comfort from having reached his first ranking event semi-final since the 2016 China Open. The Chester cueman takes home £20,000 for this week’s run to the last four.

A vocal Belfast fanbase welcomed the two players at the start of the match and they were delighted to see their home player establish an early 2-0 advantage. However, two frames in a row for Walden, including a break of 80, saw him head into the mid-session level at 2-2.

Allen regained the lead when play resumed, before winning a marathon 51-minute frame to move 4-2 ahead. In contrast, he then made short work of the seventh frame by firing in a superb break of 133 to go 5-2 up.

Walden took a tense eighth frame on the blue, but Allen closed out the match with a break of 73 which saw him run out a 6-3 victor.

“I’m buzzing. I am trying to keep as calm as possible though, as the job is not done yet. I’ll take a lot of positives out of the way I played today,” said 35-year-old Allen.

“I try not to think about my opponents too much, no matter who it is and no matter what the match is. However, to be honest, in a weird way I’d love it to be John tomorrow. He is one of the all-time greats, to face him in front of my home fans would be an amazing atmosphere. He’s got a very tough match against Yan Bingtao, who is Masters champion. The twisted part of me wants it to be John tomorrow.

“I thought the atmosphere was amazing today, but what I find in Belfast is that they are so respectful. They never shout on your shot, at the wrong times or try to put my opponent off. It is never like that. My dad is probably the one that does it the most, he always applauds my opponent’s shots, I hate him for it! That approach adds to the atmosphere.”

Mark Allen played well, but Ricky struggled a bit.

John Higgins 6-2 Yan Bingtao

Higgins Ready For ‘Best Ever’ Atmosphere

Scotland’s four-time World Champion John Higgins believes Sunday’s BetVictor Northern Ireland Open final against home favourite Mark Allen will be the best atmosphere he has ever played in. The Glaswegian booked his place in the title match with a 6-2 defeat of Masters champion Yan Bingtao.

Tomorrow’s mouth watering encounter will see Northern Ireland’s number one Allen and Higgins battle it out over the best of 17 frames for the Alex Higgins Trophy and a £70,000 top prize in Belfast.

Higgins and Allen have met 18 times previously, with the head-to-head standing at 9-9. Their first ever match with each other was played here at the Waterfront Hall at the Northern Ireland Trophy back in 2005, Allen won 4-1.

This evening’s semi-final contest was a repeat of this year’s Masters final, when Yan came out on top 10-8 in an epic clash. The Chinese 21-year-old had won their previous three meetings in total. Higgins avenged that defeat with a superb performance.

It was Yan who started fastest tonight. A break of 66 saw him come from behind to take the first and he added the second frame to establish an early 2-0 lead.

From there 31-time ranking event winner Higgins produced his very best and stormed to an inspired victory.  Breaks of 52, 83, 61, 78, 75 and 90 in consecutive frames saw him claim six on the bounce and run out a 6-2 victor.

“Atmosphere-wise I think tomorrow will be the best I have ever played in. We’ve played at the Wembley Conference Centre, we’ve played over in Hong Kong in a 3000 seater stadium and that was amazing. The atmosphere tomorrow evening will be off the chart,” said 46-year-old Higgins.

“I think the two of us will have a great support tomorrow. Mark will have the lion’s share of it and rightly so. He is a great ambassador for Irish snooker. He deserves to be in the final in front of all of his adoring fans, friends and family. I have to go in there and be 100% focussed and not let the crowd get in my thinking.

“I don’t think I will ever play in front of an atmosphere as hostile as what tomorrow will be. It will be enjoyable and a great match. I have so much respect for Mark Allen as a player, so I can’t wait.

“I’m delighted with that tonight after being 2-0 down to Yan, who has beat me the last few matches. I was loving it out there with the crowd and what they were generating. I just said to myself that I was in the semi-finals and to give it everything after so long playing behind closed doors.”

Ronnie was in the ES studio, assessed John’s performance and previewed the final (as reported by Phil Haigh)

Ronnie O’Sullivan previews John Higgins vs Mark Allen Northern Ireland Open final

Mark Allen and John Higgins
Mark Allen and John Higgins are set for a blockbuster Northern Ireland Open final (Pictures: Getty)

Mark Allen will only have a chance to beat John Higgins in the Northern Ireland Open final if the Scot dips in his level of performance from the semi-final, believes Ronnie O’Sullivan.

The Wizard of Wishaw found himself two frames behind in his semi-final clash with Yan Bingtao on Saturday, before reeling off six straight frames with a half-century in each to pick up a superb 6-2 win.

O’Sullivan was blown away by the performance of his old rival, telling Eurosport: ‘John is very clinical, but as a snooker player you cannot play snooker any better than that. It was unbelievable snooker.’

The fine victory set up a meeting in the final with local hero Allen, who beat Ricky Walden 6-3 in his own semi-final.

The Rocket was full of praise for the Northern Irishman as he looked ahead to Sunday’s final, but says that no one can deal with Higgins if he performs as he did against Yan.

‘I’ve always said Mark Allen should be a world champion because of his temperament, his belief and he genuinely does believe,’ O’Sullivan told Eurosport. ‘He isn’t scared of playing anyone, that’s a massive, massive asset.

‘He’s a great break-builder, he’s a very good all-round player, but we talk about levels, that level we’ve seen tonight from John Higgins, I’m not sure Mark Allen has that level.

‘But it only takes a little bit of a dip, if John dips and Mark hits his high level, then it’s a 50-50, even Mark Allen could be a slight favourite.

‘He’s cueing well, playing well at the start of the season, made the final of that tournament [Championship League], made a bagful of centuries, played well in Leicester [British Open], he’s on good touch.

‘I think it’s going to be a fascinating game. I’m a big fan of Mark Allen’s game, he’s a top, top player.

2019 Betway UK Championship - Day 11
Higgins made breaks of 52, 83, 61, 78, 75 and 90 against Yan (Picture: Getty Images)

‘But when you watch someone like John tonight [Saturday], if he brings that to the table, I don’t think there’s another snooker player in the history of the game over the distance – first to 9 – we have a saying: “You wouldn’t want to be locked in a room with John Higgins for a week.”

‘If you was in there for a week with him you’d need rehab.’

The six-time world champion didn’t quite go as far as predicting a result in Belfast, saying: ‘Let’s let the snooker do the talking.’

The crowd will be firmly on Allen’s side at the Waterfront Hall, but Higgins is unlikely to be intimidated, in fact he is looking forward to the challenge.

‘I was buzzing there, the atmosphere was brilliant,’ the Scot said after beating Yan. ‘It’ll be 10-fold, 100-fold tomorrow, so I can’t wait.’

The final is played over two sessions in a race to nine frames, at 1pm and 7pm on Sunday.

Ronnie’s praise means a lot to John Higgins:

Ronnie O’Sullivan praise ‘means more than all your titles and 147s,’ says John Higgins

John Higgins and Ronnie O'Sullivan
Higgins and O’Sullivan have the most respectful of rivalries (Picture: Getty)

Ronnie O’Sullivan was full of praise for John Higgins on Saturday night at the Northern Ireland Open and the Wizard says that the Rocket’s comments mean more to him than titles, hundred breaks of 147s.

Higgins was in superb form in his 6-2 win over Yan Bingtao in the Belfast semi-final, winning six frames on the spin with a half-century in each.

The Scot has booked himself a place in Sunday’s final against Mark Allen and he will be full of confidence after some incredible praise from his old rival.

O’Sullivan told Eurosport: ‘John is very clinical, but as a snooker player you cannot play snooker any better than that. It was unbelievable snooker.

‘I am baffled when people say they want to play John Higgins. You don’t want to play John Higgins.

‘It’s like playing [Lionel] Messi, I don’t want to play against Lionel Messi. I don’t want to play against Roger Federer. If he’s playing well like tonight, I’m going to be a spectator.

‘If I’m in Bingtao’s corner, don’t worry about it. No-one else can play snooker like that so it’s never going to happen again, unless you play John again.

‘It is something you can’t really teach. He has been like that since he was a kid, so most players on the circuit would say he’s the pros’ pro.

‘If you want to be another snooker player, I would choose to be John Higgins.’

It was the highest praise from O’Sullivan and it clearly touched Higgins, who was thrilled to receive it.

Asked whether comments like that mean more when they come from the Rocket, Higgins told Metro newspaper: ‘Yeah, without a doubt it does.

Welsh Open 2020 - Day 2
Higgins is looking for his first Northern Ireland Open title on Sunday (Picture: Getty Images)

‘If the greatest player, in my eyes, that’s ever held a cue can say those nice things about you it means more than all your titles, your hundred breaks, 147s, whatever.

‘If one of your peers…it’s like something akin to the Player of the Year in football, the Player’s Player of the Year, voted for by the rest of the players, I’m sure that probably means more to them because it’s the rest of the players voting.

‘When you’ve got someone like Ronnie speaking like that about you…we’ve been great rivals over the years, but that means everything.’

O’Sullivan continued on Eurosport, with a bashful Higgins beside him, saying: ‘He’s not very good at taking compliments but we all know that he is the guvnor, on the circuit, all the boys know that he’s the pro’s pro.

‘I might be a bit potty, go for my shots, Judd does this and that, but this geezer is unbelievable. He’s a legend of this game.’

Higgins plays Allen on Sunday’s final in two sessions at 1pm and 7pm in a best of 17.

Now then… what do we make of this? Both are great, great players. Both are in awe of the other because each of them possesses qualities that the other doesn’t have to the same level. Higgins’ all round game and temperament were remarkable already when he was a 13-14 years old junior. The same is true when it comes to Ronnie’s break building skills, creativity and flair. It’s just same the old story about the grass always looking greener in the neighbour’s garden…  Now, if the records count for anything … OK nuffing said!


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