Mark Allen successfully defended his Northern Ireland Open crown in Belfast after beating Zhou Yuelong 9-4 at the Waterfront Hall on Sunday.
The Pistol triumphed in front of his raucous home crowd for the second year running after reeling off eight successive frames from 4-1 down to deny his Chinese opponent a maiden ranking title.
Runner-up to Ryan Day at the British Open earlier this month, Allen went one better to lift the Alex Higgins trophy, while he also pocketed a cheque for £80,000 and secured the last remaining place in the Champion of Champions.
And after landing a magnificent seventh title, he surpasses Ken Doherty to become the most decorated Irish player in ranking event history outright.
“It hasn’t been quite like last year,” he told Eurosport. “I didn’t have my best stuff this week, but what I did have was unbelievable fight and tenacity.
“I feel like this is vindication for everything that I’ve put in the last few months. It was disappointing to end the British Open the way I did after playing so well all week. This makes it all worthwhile.
“It doesn’t get any better than this – in front of my friends and family. It’s phenomenal the support I get year in year out, even when I wasn’t doing very well here.
“I probably got a lot more support than I deserved at that time. But this is what we do in Northern Ireland; we support our own.”
Aiming to become the fourth player to win three or more Home Nations titles – after Judd Trump, Neil Robertson and Mark Selby – Allen drew first blood in his 15th ranking final with a break of 57.
But Zhou, who had failed to win a frame in his previous two appearances in a ranking showpiece, reeled off the next four – producing a magnificent 135 total clearance along the way – to take command.
However, Allen stopped the rot with timely runs of 68 and 55 to level at 4-4, and it appeared to set up an exciting evening session with a maximum of just two frames separating the players in all six previous Northern Ireland Open finals.
But the Pistol, who was beaten 10-7 by Zhou when they met in the first round of the 2019 World Championship, appeared rejuvenated when re-emerged in the evening. As his opponent began to falter, he dominated proceedings with runs of 53, 85, 50 and 51 along the way, before sealing victory in style with a stunning clearance of 109.
“I feel like I won that match in the first session because [Zhou] completely dominated the play,” added Allen, who feels it is only a matter of time before his opponent lands that maiden ranking crown. “He should’ve gone 5-1 in front; I was hanging on.
“I managed to get out 4-4 and I was just a different player tonight; I was so positive, I felt like I got out of jail today, and I played well tonight.
“[Zhou is] a talented boy. I remember sitting watching him play at the Crucible a few years back when he battered me!
“He’s got such a bright future – only 24, third ranking final. He’s going to win multiple ranking events; he’s too good not to. He’s just another machine coming off the conveyor belt in China.”