Joe O’Connor left the Scottish Open with disappointment and feeling like he belonged at the business end of big events, suggesting that his first ever ranking final is unlikely to be his last.
The 27-year-old was absolutely superb in Edinburgh, beating Zhao Xintong, Ding Junhui, Mark Williams, Ricky Walden and Neil Robertson on his way to the final.
Gary Wilson was too strong for him in the showpiece, winning 9-2, but the string of big names that O’Connor beat on the way was an amazing effort and shows that he has more than he has shown so far in his career, rising to number 40 in the world as a result.
More proof that the future is bright for the Englishman is that he is not revelling in the success, but says it felt ‘strangely normal’ to be in the final, and painful to lose it rather than just feeling happy to be there.
‘I’m really pleased, over the moon with what I did, but when you get that chance in the final all you want to do is win it, so a little bit of disappointment at the same time,’ O’Connor told Metro.co.uk.
‘Obviously beating five top 16-standard players in a row is an incredible achievement on its own. To make my first ranking final, it’s been a great week, I cant say it’s not been a great week, but obviously it would have been nice to win.
‘To me it felt very normal. It was strangely normal. I don’t think I was nervous once. The night before the final I didn’t sleep the best, maybe that was a bit of adrenaline, but in the matches nothing felt new or out of the ordinary. It just felt like I belonged there.’
Still more encouraging is that O’Connor didn’t feel like he played out of his skin to pick up the string of brilliant wins, in fact he thinks he can do much better.
‘Through the week I didn’t feel like I was playing my best. I know I played well against Robertson, Williams, against all of them to be honest. Maybe I’m being super critical but I just feel like there is an extra level that I’ve just not reached yet.
‘I know what I can do. Patches in practice I think, “If I play like this, it doesn’t matter who I’m playing, I’m going to win.” Obviously doing it on the big stage is a very different scenario, but I know it’s in there somewhere. 90 per cent of it, at least, came out, so I can’t moan.’
O’Connor took his record to two wins from two over Ding, it was the first time he played Williams and now has a perfect record against him, while he has twice beaten John Higgins in the past as he builds quite a CV of vanquished foes.
‘There’s maybe one or two that are missing,’ he said. ‘One of them is the big one, the Rocket. Hopefully I can tick that one off in the coming years before he hangs his cue up.’
Ronnie O’Sullivan was very impressed with what he saw from O’Connor in Scotland, tipping him as a future world champion while on punditry duty for Eurosport.
‘I have seen it on Twitter that he said that,’ said Joe. ‘I don’t know, I don’t know what to say. The best ever to play the game is tipping me to be world champion, it doesn’t get much better than that.
‘I’m definitely not taking it as any pressure, I’ll just put that in the confidence bank and dig into that when I need to.’
O’Connor was delighted to hear the praise from the world champion, but it is the Rocket’s old rival Mark Selby who is something of an inspiration to him on the baize.
Both coming from Leicester and from a background in pool, O’Connor has tried to follow in the footsteps placed by the Jester.
‘I wouldn’t say I model my game on him, but I do look up to him,’ he said. ‘When I started playing pool he was one of the best, he won the World Championship.
‘I’ve been to a couple of the World Snooker Championship finals when he’s won it. Watching his success has constantly motivated me. I want to be there, this is what I want to do.
‘Everyone talks about how much he practices, I’m trying to follow his path a bit. We don’t practice together as much as I’d like to, but I don’t want to pester him for a game every day. He’s one of the best in the world, he doesn’t benefit as much from a practice session with me as I do, and I respect that. But hopefully now we can play a bit more regularly.
‘When we do practice I try to ask little things about how he thinks in certain situations, with certain shots, but just playing him and watching up close. The way he sees the game and goes about everything, it’s good to watch in person.’
O’Connor was attracting a lot of attention during his run in Edinburgh, with his semi-final opponent Robertson handing him praise for his vast improvement on the table.
The pair met back in 2014 at the UK Championship, before O’Connor had turned professional, and the Australian cantered to a 6-0 win.
The Thunder from Down Under recalls not thinking much of Joe’s game at the time, but is thoroughly impressed with it now and hailed the hard work that he has clearly put in.
‘It’s good to hear from someone like that,’ said O’Connor. ‘Back then I think I was a top up for a couple of years. I played Neil that year and then Selby the year after, got beat 6-0 twice! It’s hard to come back from a battering but it’s just experience and I tried to take it in my stride and learn as much as I could.
‘It was one of my first experiences playing on the main table in front of a big crowd, playing one of the best in the world. Nine times out of 10 that doesn’t go well. I can imagine a lot of players sitting in their chair and thinking there’s a long way to go, facing this level. But I took it in my stride. it’s all experience.’
O’Connor has learned fast, with that clash with Robertson at the UK not that long after he started taking snooker seriously.
His focus was pool as a teenager, not switching to snooker until after the age at which many players were making centuries, so he has caught up impressively and is confident there is plenty more improvement on the way.
‘I played pool as a junior up till I was 18, played for England but there was never any money in it. I was pretty good, but if I wanted to make a career out of it, it had to be snooker,’ he said.
‘I started playing more, in the local leagues, the junior tours, it didn’t take long for me to really enjoy snooker and the enjoyment of pool started to decline.
‘It’s hard to say when I fully started concentrating on snooker, I played pool till I was 18, but there was a year or so when I was playing pool but not practicing, it was 16, 17 when I started playing snooker properly.
‘I think Mark [Selby], people like that, started when they were 8 or 9. They’ve got eight years on me. People my age, will have been similar, but I think I’ve caught up pretty quick.’
O’Connor looked like a veteran when he pulled off a remarkable clearance to go 4-3 ahead of Robertson in the semi-final, knocking in a tremendously difficult 47 to pinch the frame.
He says he didn’t think much of it at the time, but on reflection it was pretty special and will be a boost when tough times come.
‘That 47 clearance I’ve seen on social media quite a few times,’ he said. ‘It’s a weird one because I was clearing up and in the moment it didn’t seem as amazing as everyone’s saying it is. You just pot one, get on that one, you just plod along. I can look back at it if I’m feeling low at any time, remember the good clearance I did.;
Low moments are far from rare for players down the world rankings, with wins sometimes hard to come by and money not exactly spilling out of their cue cases.
O’Connor says he has not plumbed any snooker depths yet though, crediting a good first season as a pro in 2018/19, and also keeping his mind on other things away from the baize, notably in the boxing ring and the jiu-jitsu mat.
‘I’ve been ok,’ he said. ‘Until this year my best year on tour was my first year, which set me up financially. I’ve not had a sponsor, other than a couple of tournaments recently, I’ve not had the backing that other players have had. I’m open to sponsors but they’re so hard to find.
‘I did well early on and that took pressure off and I’ve just been able to play snooker and not worry about getting here or there. I’ve done enough to not be at the bottom.
‘Off the table I do quite a lot outside of snooker. I go in, do my practice, work hard, but snooker’s just a small percentage of what I do the rest of the week. I play poker, go to the gym, I box, jiu-jitsu, I do as much as I can outside to keep my mind off of it.
‘I’ve been going to the gym since before I turned pro, six years maybe now but focussing on boxing for six months to a year. I enjoy learning in fighting, learning the fundamentals, I love it.’
Asked if the pugilism is a worry for his snooker, he said: ‘I do need my hands, but I’m strengthening them! We don’t do heavy sparring, I won’t be fighting any time soon, I just love the fitness and learning. I play a bit of football as well, that’s probably worse for injuries.’
Expectation levels will rise for O’Connor after his superb efforts in Scotland, but he’s ready for the scrap and sounds primed to fight his way further up the rankings, punching his ticket to snooker’s upper-echelons.
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