Snooker can drive even its most passionate advocates up the wall at times. It may not be a physical sport but the mental demands are considerable, with no team-mates to lighten the load. So as the action unfolded in York, Wilson could only watch from afar.
This is a major breakthrough for a player who has knocked on the door several times only to find it refusing to budge. A tenacious competitor, nobody ever thought he was an easy draw. He’s made four maximums in tournament play and once compiled four centuries in a row in the UK Championship.
His attacking style, at its best, can be devastating. However, he came to Scotland having fallen to 32nd from a career-high of 17th. There was no clue that he would go all the way before play began a week ago.
Wilson had long been touted as a potential champion. He won the world under-21 title in 2004, joining the pro ranks at a time when the number of snooker tournaments was dwindling.
His first spell yielded little and he spent time driving a taxi before the meter started running again on his playing career.
Stan Chambers, who Wilson mentioned in his victory speech last night, never stopped believing. Stan was Mr Snooker in the north-east, putting on junior events, providing coaching, encouragement and opportunities, the sort of unsung hero every sport needs.
He passed away last year but had left his mark on a generation of players from Tyneside.
Watch Wilson toss cue in frustration as Petrov flukes treble on pink
As a youngster, Wilson had gone to watch the Nations Cup in Newcastle, close to his Wallsend base. He was awestruck as stars like Hendry, O’Sullivan and John Higgins strutted their stuff. His own talent suggested that one day he would be centre stage himself, but the pro tour is tough and progress was slow.
After rejoining the circuit, he reached the China Open final in 2015 but the occasion overwhelmed him, as did Mark Selby, 10-2. A run to the semi-finals of the 2019 World Championship helped him to the verge of the elite top 16 and he made a second final last season, losing 6-4 to Mark Williams in the British Open.
In between, there have been implosions, disappointments and the feeling that he wasn’t quite hitting the heights he was capable of.
Every player is different because every human being is different. Some manage to retain their cool regardless of what is happening, others can’t help but react, even when they know they shouldn’t.
Wilson has always been an emotional character but several times last week put feeling to one side and just got on with it, playing on instinct. That was the case against O’Sullivan, who he beat in a decider. It was the case again post-interval in the semi-finals against Thepchaiya Un Nooh and once more in the final yesterday.
His quarter-final opponent, Kyren Wilson, had been unhappy with his namesake’s behaviour at the interval of their match, throwing a cue ball across a practice table and gesticulating after leaving a red near a middle pocket.
Wilson – Gary, that is – was apologetic. Perhaps the incident made a positive difference in the way he approached the rest of the event. He just seemed to zone in on the table, becoming less inclined to get on his own case.
This is easier said than done. Wilson is not alone in letting the pressure of big-time snooker get to him. In the German Masters qualifiers a fortnight ago, Dave Gilbert conceded a best-of-nine-frame match trailing only 3-2. In Edinburgh, Sam Craigie conceded trailing just 29-1 with nine reds remaining.
Players know they need to uphold the long-established standards of professionalism within snooker. Part of the challenge of sport is to accept adversity and cope with the bad as well as the good.
‘He thought my attitude was disgusting’ – Gary Wilson explains exchange with Kyren at interval
Gilbert and Craigie are liable for disciplinary action, but their personal situations should also be considered. If sports bodies are going to talk about mental health awareness then they can’t just pay lip service to it. Behind every player is a story, a set of circumstances often hidden from the public.
During the height of Covid, Wilson found himself in a difficult place mentally. Playing John Higgins in the Championship League in early 2021, he smashed at the balls, later tweeting: “I’m just totally gone, including snooker. I can’t play at all. Feel the worst I’ve ever felt and can’t see a way back anymore.”
This cry for help was met with sympathy and help was forthcoming. Now, he is on an all-time high, finally joining snooker’s winners’ circle after several years in which he began to doubt it could happen.
Snooker’s return to Scotland after three years away was a great success. The Meadowbank Centre in Edinburgh proved a fine choice of venue for the event and the standard of play was routinely high, with 86 centuries over the seven days, including Judd Trump’s 147.
O’Connor’s run to the final was incredible considering how he did it. Coming in 55th in the rankings with just one semi-final appearance previously to his name, he beat Zhao Xintong, Ding Junhui, Mark Williams, Ricky Walden and Neil Robertson, players with 66 ranking event victories between them.
He missed a few key balls in the first session of the final and never recovered, but his stellar week and the triumph of Wilson proves once again the strength in depth in snooker right now. Some leading names are underperforming and those down the ranks are more than capable of taking advantage.
Last week, it was Gary Wilson, at next week’s English Open it could be someone else coming out of the pack.
The key, as Wilson can attest, is to keep believing – regardless of all the setbacks and times when you wonder why you’re even still playing – that it can happen. Because one day it might, and then there’s no sweeter feeling.
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