Joe O’Connor enjoyed an eye-catching arrival at snooker’s top table last season which secured him the Rookie of the Year award. Now he is setting his sights on a surge up the world rankings.
The 23-year-old from Leicester is ranked 75th in the world after a series of strong showings last year, which included a run to the semi-finals of the Welsh Open. We caught up with him to find out how he feels about the campaign ahead…
Joe, how much of a surprise was it when you found out that you had been awarded Rookie of the Year for your performances last season?
“Well I was asked to attend the Crucible during the World Championship and wasn’t told why, so it really was a surprise. I only found out in the interview when I was presented with the trophy. I had an inkling, but you are never sure. It is such a good award to win because you only have one chance to do it. The trophy has gone straight into the cabinet and it will always be a reminder of what was an unforgettable season.”
The highlight of that campaign was your run to the semi-finals of the Welsh Open in Cardiff. It was a treacherous route to the last four and you had to beat Ding Junhui, Kyren Wilson and John Higgins along the way, before eventually losing to Stuart Bingham. How much confidence did you take from the way you performed that week?
“The draw and the people I managed to beat are what made the tournament for me. You can get to a quarter or semi-final and do it because the draw opens up for you and a few big names go out. That wasn’t the case in Cardiff and I had to face some of the best players in the world. That has pushed my confidence through the roof, to beat guys like that all in a row was brilliant. That is what you want to be able to do and experience.
“I didn’t expect to win in the semi-finals even though I had been on a great run. I was just taking each match at a time. Having said that, each round that I got through I did begin to believe a bit more. I started to think in the back of my mind that it could be my tournament and my week.
“There is more of a spotlight on you when you get further in an event and there are bigger crowds watching your matches, with more interviews to do. I enjoyed all of that and I felt more of a part of the tournament. At that point I knew I was meant to be there, rather than just to make up the numbers. I will always have great memories of that Welsh Open, no matter what I do in the rest of my career.”
You went on to beat John Higgins again at the China Open later in the season. How good does it feel to have won both of your matches against such an illustrious player?
“It would be nice to never play John again and keep that record! I don’t know what it is, but I think that playing against top players may help me to play my best game and get that little bit extra out of my concentration levels. You have to be completely on the ball against players like that, because you know how good they are. They will punish any slight mistake and you have to take every chance you get.”
Are you now looking at breaking into the top 64 in the world rankings as your main target for this season?
“When I first won my tour card I started out with the target of just making sure that even if I dropped off after two years, I would have improved enough to get straight back on. That would have been the lowest target I wanted to achieve. Having had such a good year now, I can raise my expectations a little bit. I want to try and have another big run to the semis or the quarters and push for that top 64. It is a more realistic target now. It is reachable. I am working even harder than I was before because I have a genuine opportunity to push on.”
How are you adjusting to the travelling involved with being on the circuit?
“I’m a lot better at it now. I’ve been to China a few times and it is getting easier to handle the time difference. You just need to do trips like that over and over again and you get more used to it. The travelling is nice, but it isn’t as glamorous as people would think. We are there to do a job and win snooker matches. It isn’t easy to travel so far and prepare for a game, but that is all part and parcel of being a professional. It is nice to be able to experience different places and cultures for work, so you have to be grateful.”
You grew up playing on the junior snooker and eight ball pool circuits with fellow Leicester player Louis Heathcote, who qualified to get on the tour through this season’s Q School. He said that your success last year inspired him to get on the circuit. How pleased are you that he has managed to make it to professional status?
“Yeah, we’ve known each other for years so it is great to see him come through Q School. I obviously got on last year and it is really nice to see he has watched me and motivated himself from that. I’m glad we can get back to travelling the world together.
“I think we will have a bit of a friendly rivalry over the bragging rights if we play against each other. Each time we go out there it is serious and we are playing for ranking points and our careers, but as a mate I know he won’t let me live it down for a while if he beats me!”