Masters Snooker: Mark Allen eyes prize as big break sets up shot at glory
Striking a work-life balance in a sport that requires so much dedication is a serious challenge for any snooker player - something that Mark Allen knows only too well.
And with one of the sport's three biggest tournaments, the Masters, taking place in early January, maintaining that balance becomes even more precarious over the festive period as family commitments and the practice table vie for attention.
With world No.6 Judd Trump claiming he didn't take a single day off over Christmas and world No.12 Ricky Walden putting in almost 10 hours practice per day, Antrim cueman Allen's decision to go 10 days without picking up a cue begins to look bold.
When he returned to practice at the beginning of last week, Allen admits he couldn't string together a 30 break but recovered enough to dump defending champion Shaun Murphy out of the £600,000 Masters, winning 6-4 in the first round on Sunday.
And as he gears up for a quarter-final with Barry Hawkins this evening, the 29-year-old claims he doesn't regret a thing.
"I feel like I'm back into it now. I didn't feel at my best heading into that Murphy match but I played alright, so a couple of days on the practice table since and I feel I'm getting closer to my best," said Allen.
"I definitely don't regret taking that time off - I love having time off over Christmas, spending time with family and friends but I did suffer for it when I came back to practice.
"I believe it's good to let your hair down sometimes and have a break from snooker because it's a long season and we've got a lot of tournaments with a lot of travelling.
"I do the same in the summer - have a long break, play a lot of golf and always start the season a little bit sluggish
"I didn't really doing anything special but had a few family members down on New Year's Eve to the house and had a couple of drinks - nothing too mad. Catching up with friends I don't see too much was great - just the normal things people do."
Allen is in the shake-up as the best player never to have won a triple crown event - that being the Masters, UK Championship or World Championship - a record he is keen to end at London's Alexandra Palace this week.
And while you might think his record of never having won 'the big one' might heap the pressure on him, that's not something the world No.11 agrees with.
"Maybe for the media there is extra pressure on me to win when it's a triple crown event but not for me really," explained Allen.
"Perhaps I haven't showed it in my matches but I know that I've got the game to win these big tournaments.
"In my matches I haven't necessarily been at my best but I've got to a lot of later stages of events this season which shows you where my game is at.
"If I produce my best I can definitely win one," he said.
While Allen is Northern Ireland's great snooker hope for the time being, his successor could ultimately emerge from his own family.
His 11-year-old stepson Robbie McGuigan, the son of Allen's wife Kyla from a previous relationship, won the Northern Ireland U16 event last Sunday - the same day that his stepfather was downing Murphy in London.
And while proud of Robbie, the man nicknamed 'The Pistol' won't be putting pressure on the youngster any time soon.
"Wee Robbie won the Northern Ireland U16s on the Sunday past, so that was a good day for both of us with me beating Shaun as well," added Allen.
"That was the first junior tournament he's won and hopefully it will be the first of many. He's only 11 and he's got a lot of talent.
"I just let him do his own thing - he's a bit too young to practice with me at the moment, so hopefully he'll keep enjoying it and having fun because that's the most important thing at his age.
"I won't be getting into coaching him or anything like that - I'm sure he'll be beating me soon enough though!
"These are the important years where he needs to keep developing. You improve very quickly when you're young so hopefully he keeps the bug and anything could happen."
Meanwhile, John Higgins produced a sizzling display of break-building to beat Liang Wenbo 6-4 and set up a quarter-final against world champion Stuart Bingham tomorrow night.
Higgins was arguably the best player of 2015 and he made a cracking start to 2016 yesterday with three centuries - 119, 104 and 133 - and two more breaks over 70.
He had a chance of a maximum on his way to the 104 but ran out of position after potting 13 reds with blacks.
"I'm delighted with the way I hit the ball," said Higgins.
"I was thinking back to my match with Mark Allen in the first round here last year when I played really well and made three centuries but lost 6-4. I'm just pleased to come out on the winning side."
Neil Robertson last night crushed Marco Fu 6-0 and faces Judd Trump tomorrow afternoon.
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