After a week of highs and lows in Belfast here we are on the Final day with a line-up not many would have predicted: the defending Champion, Mark Allen, will face Zhou Yuelong who will play in his third final.
Here is how we got here:
Afternoon session: Zhou Yuelong 6-4 Anthony Mc Gill (WST report):
Zhou Battles Past McGill
Zhou Yuelong reached the third ranking final of his career by battling past steely Scot Anthony McGill 6-4 in the last four of the BetVictor Northern Ireland Open in Belfast.
China’s former World Cup winner Zhou appeared in two title matches in 2020, falling short of silverware at the BetVictor Shoot Out and the BetVictor European Masters. He was runner-up to Michael Holt in the former and unfortunately succumbed to a 9-0 loss against Neil Robertson in the latter.
Zhou will be hoping there are no repeats of that whitewash defeat this week. He will face either Robertson or defending champion Mark Allen over the best of 17 frames, with the Alex Higgins Trophy and the £70,000 top prize on the line.
Defeat for world number 20 McGill ends his hopes of earning a place in the top 16 of the rankings ahead of the UK Championship. He will now need to attend qualifying to earn his place in the first Triple Crown event of the campaign.
McGill took a tightly contested opening frame on the pink, before Zhou hit back with a break of exactly 100 to draw level. They traded the following two frames and went into the mid-session locked level at 2-2.
When the players returned, it was 24-year-old Zhou who came out firing with a sublime contribution of 132 to take the lead. He led 62-0 in the sixth, but missed a routine red to the top right. McGill pounced with a clearance of 73 to steal on the black and restore parity at 3-3.
The Glaswegian then strung together a break of 101 from a great long red to regain the lead at 4-3. However, it was at that moment that Zhou burst into life. After drawing level again, back-to-back centuries of 127 and 110 saw him emerge a 6-4 victor.
“I think we both played well in the match, but in some frames we did both miss chances,” said world number 23 Zhou. “We both lost some concentration, but in the last two frames I played really well.
“Many times I’ve dreamed of winning a title, but I know how tough it is. When you are close to a trophy, you think about it. From the first time you pick up a cue and every time you walk into an academy and play on the table, you dream to win a trophy. It is hard for me, but I want to try and relax and not care whether I win or lose. I just want to enjoy the final.
“If I win, I will be happy to have made my dream come true. If I don’t win then alright, I will win next time. It is important to not get under pressure, this is no good. You have to not think about the trophy and just play.”
It was an excellent match indeed and Zhou’s attitude impressed me. If he can keep it today, it will be a great final no matter who wins.
Evening session: Mark Allen 6-2 Neil Robertson (WST report):
Allen Into Second Consecutive Belfast Final
Defending champion Mark Allen is through to the final of the BetVictor Northern Ireland Open, after defeating Australia’s Neil Robertson 6-2 in front of a passionate home crowd in Belfast.
Antrim’s Allen emotionally landed the Alex Higgins Trophy for the first time 12 months ago, by defeating John Higgins 9-8 in a thrilling final. He now faces China’s Zhou Yuelong over the best of 17 frames tomorrow, with the chance to defend his crown. The winner will scoop a £70,000 top prize.
Tomorrow’s final is sure to be contested amidst a raucous atmosphere. The evening session sold out earlier today and the afternoon session has just a handful of tickets remaining. The winner of tomorrow’s match will scoop the last remaining spot in the upcoming Champion of Champions event.
Allen’s success this week comes off the back of a summer of hard work away from the table. The Northern Irishman has now lost nearly five stone in a bid to get fitter, which was inspired by a chat with World Champion Ronnie O’Sullivan after Allen lost to him at the Crucible.
Defeat for 23-time ranking event winner Robertson ends his bid to become the first player to complete the Home Nations Slam. The Melbourne cueman has won each of the other three Home Nations events, with the Northern Ireland Open remaining the final piece of the puzzle for at least another year.
Allen won a truncated opening frame this evening, but Robertson responded by taking the second courtesy of a 56 break. Allen won the third and then ensured a 3-1 lead at the interval with a contribution of exactly 100.
The Pistol didn’t let up when play resumed and fired in a superb break of 136 to move 4-1 in front. Robertson pegged him back with 68 in the sixth, but a run of 60 in the seventh made it 5-2 to Allen.
The eighth frame came down to the colours, which Allen cleared with 27 to force a respot. After an extensive safety battle, Allen eventually deposited a long range black to the yellow pocket to send the Waterfront Hall crowd wild.
“The atmosphere on those last few balls was ridiculous. It looked a few times as if Neil would leave me a shot and the crowd were going mad, then it ran a bit more and I had to play safe. I got a chance at that long black, potted it lovely and the crowd went nuts. It was class,” said 36-year-old Allen.
“Zhou is a class player. I always thought he was the best out of the Chinese outside of Ding but he never really pushed on. Yan and Zhao have pushed on and got themselves up the rankings. Zhou has always been classy. There is something about him, he hits the ball well and scores heavy. I just have to play my game. He hasn’t won a tournament yet and it would be nice if I could keep him on zero for as long as possible. He is so young and if he gets one or two under his belt he could go on to win multiple further events. It is up to me to try and stop that.
“I want the crowd to be boisterous. I want them to be supportive like they always are, but I want them to be fair. If Zhou plays well and pots good balls I want them to show him appreciation. It is a ranking final and both players deserve to be there. We’ve played some good stuff to be there and I want them to be respectful, but also cheer me on as much as possible.”
I will be honest, I expected Neil Roberson to win this one, the way he had played in this event so far. He was disappointing yesterday. That said he played against a 200% motivated Mark Allen and by the boisterous Belfast crowd 200% supportive of the Northern Irish boy and defending champion. That’s a lot to cope with.
Mark Allen has always been someone telling things the way he feels and sees it. He made his intentions clear and he will start the match as favourite given his experience and motivation. Will he feel the pressure? Surely. Will he cope with it? Probably but we shall see.
That said, he has lost a lot of weight, which should help his stamina, and he has also been working with a mental coach, as he explained to Eurosport:
Allen has appeared totally focused all week and the 36-year-old puts this down to the work of his mind coach.
“I don’t feel like I’ve played my best stuff this week, but what I have had is a really good attitude.
“Balls I have missed, I’ve forgot about straight away, and I’ve just looked forward to my next visit, no matter what the score is, or who I’m playing.
“I’ve been working with a mind coach the last few months and I feel like I’m in a really good place at the moment. We’ve been working together since then and we chat a lot, chat before every match or at least every other day. And he’s really got me in a good place.
“I’ll speak to him tomorrow [Sunday] morning and I’ll probably speak to him again before tomorrow night’s session regardless of what the score is.”
Also … before someone jumps on my back … I DO know that the top prize for this event is £80,000 not £70,000. Apparently though, whoever writes for WST isn’t aware this season update “money schedule”. I’v sent an email to their press officer.