Different strokes

Vidya Pillai and Umadevi in Bangalore.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Vidya Pillai and Umadevi Nagaraj shared the same room at the Gwalior Nationals recently and virtually plotted their opponents’ downfall to bag the snooker and billiards crowns respectively. They spoke to Sportstar, a week after their return from Gwalior. Avinash Nair and Ashwin Achal listen in.

At 35, Vidya Pillai is a seven-time women’s national snooker champion, and at 48, R. Umadevi Nagaraj has added a fourth national billiards crown to her collection.

Umadevi also clinched the world billiards title (senior women) last year, while Vidya won the bronze medal at the 2012 IBSF World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria. Vidya and Umadevi shared the same room at the Gwalior Nationals recently and virtually plotted their opponents’ downfall to bag the snooker and billiards crowns respectively.

Fellow Bangalorean Varsha Sanjeev pocketed the sub-junior billiards title, leaving no doubt about Karnataka’s prowess in women’s cuesport.

Vidya and Umadevi spoke to Sportstar, a week after their return from Gwalior.

Question: Tell us how you were introduced to the sport.

Vidya Pillai: I was introduced to cuesport by my good friend Hemang Badani (former India cricketer), who took a few of us to a snooker parlour to celebrate a Ranji Trophy century. Later, when I began to play regularly, I was amazed to see Kamala madam (T. G. Kamala Devi, the late national billiards champion) win national titles when she was over 60 years old. It was mind over matter. I usually visited the TNBSA and snooker parlours for half an hour of potting, and from there I drifted off to watch a movie. But after watching Kamala madam win titles at her age, I began to work hard on my game. And in the last 10-12 years, I have seven titles, and three runner-up finishes to my credit.

Umadevi Nagaraj: Initially, I used to go to the KGS club to play table tennis. But the then secretary of the club asked me to give billiards a shot. I began playing in right earnest. Later on, Arvind Savur (former national billiards and snooker champion) took me under his wing, and his coaching pushed me to the next level.

How much has the sport changed you as a person?

Umadevi: There are many things that one learns from a sport. Cuesport has primarily helped me grow as an individual. I was somebody who did my routines, and just stuck to myself. Today, the game has taken me places. I am much more confident and social.

Vidya: I have a learnt a lot too, though I still remain the person I was, say 15 years ago. I’ve, perhaps, matured and mellowed down a bit with success, marriage, and now motherhood.

Were you well prepared for the Nationals?

Vidya: I returned after a long lay-off, almost a year and a half. So, I was quite thrilled to win. This success has given me an entry to the Indian camp for the Asian 6-Red Snooker Championship as well, though I missed the previous two editions of the event.

Umadevi: I have been working on my game regularly. That’s what I do best. Win or lose, I practise hard. And this year, as the defending world champion, I had to work even harder.

Comment on the state of women’s cuesport.

Vidya: The lack of tournaments is hurting the game. We have a State championship, and then it’s the Nationals. There were some Open events at the CCI and the Bombay Gymkhana, but those have stopped now. In Chennai, a couple of events are being conducted for women. But it’s only the same 14 to 18 players who play all tournaments. And some of the juniors, despite being around for about eight years, have not progressed enough to challenge the top cueists.

Umadevi: We see a lot of girls and women playing at parlours or clubs in Karnataka, but they don’t take part in official competitions. I think it is the same in Tamil Nadu. Unless we have a broader talent base to choose from, the same set of players will fight for top honours.

Cuesport is often associated with vices like drinking and gambling. How was it when you started out?

Vidya: Cuesport has always been associated with vices. I’m not sure why, maybe it is the fault of movies. When you tell people that you play snooker or billiards, they immediately doubt your character. Why can’t cuesport be treated as just a regular sport? Hardwork and talent are required to succeed here as well. An awareness and understanding of the sport is vital; the mindset should change.

Umadevi: I haven’t faced this type of bias too much. Perhaps it’s because I just keep to myself and focus on the game. But, I think this impression has changed now. When people see someone like Pankaj Advani performing well, the general impression changes.

In order to popularise the sport, would you be averse to relaxing the formal dress codes?

Vidya: All sports could use some changes, even on the men’s side. Some glamour will help. Glamour doesn’t mean players have to wear skimpy clothes. Even the suit that we wear now can be made more stylish. The point is to attract more people to the sport, so that the officials have something to build on. Get more casual fans to the sport, and then take it from there. Another option to popularise the game would be to get celebrities to play a few exhibition matches. An M.S. Dhoni versus Pankaj Advani match will generate some interest. If not a sportsman, a celebrity actor will do the trick.

Umadevi: I don’t know about changing the dress code, but I believe the biggest boost to the sport will come from more number of tournaments.