It’s been a little over four months since Pankaj Advani won the world professional billiards title, rode on a wave of euphoria, swung from one tournament to a promotional event and back in quick succession, walked in fashion shows, and lived the life of a budding star. Reality is now beginning to take over.
Cued in: Advani dismisses the fact that he’s never had a 1,000-point break in billiards as a mere statistic. Shreya Patil Shinde / Mint
“You are as good as your last win. I have realized I can’t win all the time even though people expect me to. I am human, I will bleed if you cut me,” says Advani.
He just took a break in Goa for the Sunburn festival and to welcome the new year. He says he needed the holiday as the elation that followed his world title was wearing off and he had to “take a step back and do some things differently”.
At 24, Advani is being touted as perhaps the best billiards player ever from India. It’s a slippery pedestal to be placed on, considering the country has a rich legacy in cue sports—starting with Wilson Jones, through Michael Ferreira and Geet Sethi, among several others. Advani’s victory in the world billiards final over Mike Russell in Leeds, England, in early September was the crowning of a prodigious talent who has grabbed attention since he was 12 years old. His career resume now boasts of seven world titles—including professional and amateur billiards, and an amateur snooker title.
The amateur circuit is conducted by the International Billiards and Snooker Federation, while the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association holds the professional events. Billiards has fewer professionals and is played in fewer countries, while professional snooker is more competitive.
Advani’s first world professional billiards title took a weight off his shoulders. Not because the question haunting him was “will he”, but more of “when will he”. He followed that up with his third national snooker and billiards titles, respectively, taking his total of national titles to 17.
The rest of 2009 went in a blur for the Bangalore-based Advani, who then lost in the amateur world snooker championships in Hyderabad and finished third in the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam, both in November. He then lost in the semi-finals of an invitation snooker tournament in Chennai in December. The reason why he felt “stale” and in need of “switch off” for a month: Because he couldn’t “think too much about the game”.
“I may have become complacent, so I need to pull up my socks, stay sharp. The mind starts playing games, you know,” says Advani, dressed in one of those jeans that only people on one side of 25 find appealing.
His opinion on clothing is the best indicator of his age, for he manages to cloak his youthfulness with the poise of the seasoned champion when he plays. For instance, he wants to change what he wears at work, preferring to play in a colourful, snazzy waistcoat instead of the black formal wear which he believes takes something away from cue sports as a television event. “The formal wear has to go. Sports is all about packaging now,” he says.
Despite a slightly nervous body language, Advani speaks with confidence, sure of what he wants to say or do. It’s one of the attributes that appeals to former world amateur billiards champion Ferreira. “He has to watch out for his admirers. When you feel like you are God Almighty, a stage which he has not reached yet, then, as they say, pride goes before a fall,” says Ferreira. “But he is level-headed and makes strong statements, which comes from the confidence of being the best in the business.”
Critics often point to the one chink in his armour—that he has never had a 1,000-point break. But Advani dismisses that statistic as a mere number. “Players have had breaks of over 500 against me and still lost,” he says. His best has been 867, but few would bet against Advani getting the four-figure mark eventually.
Ferreira explains: “He has not had the opportunity to play long games like we did. You have to judge him by the quality of his peers. So far he has been outstanding internationally. Whether he can be compared to greats of the past…if he had the same experience in playing longer games like we used to have, then he would match up to us.”
As a 10-year-old, he watched elder brother Shree play in a neighbourhood parlour till he could wait no longer. Barely able to reach the table, he pocketed the first shot he ever tried.
Former national snooker champion Arvind Savur initially refused to take him under his wing because, at 5ft 1 inch, Advani was too short. A year later, an enduring partnership began. Two months after they started training together, Savur told Shree that little Pankaj could reproduce any shot immediately. In 2003, at 17, Advani was the national snooker champion.
“It’s the result of his dedication and hard work,” says Savur over the phone from Bangalore. “You have to be focused and not succumb to distractions, which is what I have always told him. He has never deviated from that goal; for instance, he does not have late evenings,” adds Savur, who would pick up the brothers from the Karnataka State Billiards Association (KSBA), drive them to his home to coach and then drop them back at the KSBA.
Success can spoil, but Advani remains grounded thanks to “father figure and the man who taught me everything” Savur, Shree and mother Kajal who, the siblings say, remains remarkably nonchalant about his achievements. Support also came from others, like the college principal in Bangalore who shooed him away from college to practice, insisting he bring laurels instead of attending classes.
“I was 6 when I lost my father. I was not mature enough to realize the impact. Mom played the role of both parents, which is why we did not miss him. My mental strength also comes from mom,” says Advani, whose traditionally business-oriented Sindhi family has never had a sportsman in its ranks.
Their relative is now the world’s best in the business.