Proving a point

Pankaj Advani has finally nailed the one title that had eluded him for the past few years — the World professional billiards crown. With his victory in Leeds, the champion gave a fitting reply to his critics who had looked askance at his ability to play against the big boys of the professional circuit. By Kalyan Ashok.

Pankaj Advani had won all the titles that mattered in billiards barring the World professional crown. Three unsuccessful attempts in the past few years made his detractors doubt his ability to match up to the so-called big boys of professional billiards. Advani, however, silenced them all by becoming the second Indian — after Geet Sethi — to win the professional title in Leeds recently.

Advani said that he is now at peace with himself, and that there is nothing he needs to prove to anyone. “The challenge ahead is only about how to defend all the titles that I have won and how to keep enjoying the game,” remarked the champion while speaking to Sportstar about his Leeds victory and the game in general.

Excerpts:

Question: Would you rate winning the World professional title as your best effort?

Answer: I rate all my titles high, and let us not forget that the IBSF tournaments I had won also had their share of professionals. So winning those titles were as big as the World pro title. But yes, this trophy was missing in my cupboard, and now I have it. It also helped answer all those who kept saying that I have not won the big one yet…

How different was the championship in Leeds?

It was a litmus test to my ability, temperament and patience. The playing conditions in England are quite different from what we have here, and I was in the ‘Group of Death’, so to say, with tough and experienced rivals like Geet Sethi. And there was Dhruv Sitwala, who was in smashing form. The win against Geet Sethi, which helped me enter the quarterfinals, was very crucial and it lifted my spirits and sharpened my focus. But I would rate the match against Sitwala in the semifinals as the toughest. It was a cliff-hanger and I had to make a 100-plus break in the final stages. That kind of situation always spurs me on. I love challenges and I produced that unfinished break of 142 to stop Sitwala. That victory meant a lot to me, and I had the right focus in the final.

Were you nervous while playing against the nine-time champion Mike Russell, who was on the verge of a hat-trick?

Not at all, I was very clear in my mind that I had to go and play my game. I was not going to worry about how Mike plays. Having come thus far, I was determined not to give up.

You built up a huge lead (600-plus) in the first hour. Was it a calculated assault?

The whole idea was to seize the initiative early. The first hour was very crucial because I had to strike before Mike warmed up. That’s what I did and built up enough big breaks to gain a good lead. Once I had that, I knew I had to stay on course and consistently build big breaks and shut out the possibility of a recovery by Mike. The plan worked and I came through comfortably.

A great team… Pankaj Advani with his coach Arvind Savur after winning the final of the IBSF World Championship (time format) in Bangalore in September 2008. “Savur has not only been my coach, but also my guiding spirit,” says the champion.-

Beating a nine-time champion in the final must be something special?

Yes, it is hugely satisfying. The fact that I played Mike in the final itself was a memorable one. He is such an experienced player and must have won his first pro title when I was a four-year-old or so. The big margin of my win did not really matter to me, but the fact that I beat a man who was defending the title and a true champion did matter a lot.

Now that you have won the World pro billiards title, are you aiming for the World pro snooker crown?

A lot of people have asked me that, and I have said a 100 times and I am saying this for the last time — the pro snooker title doesn’t interest me. I don’t relish the prospect of the pro snooker circuit where one has to play for nine months in a year and that too in England. I enjoy my billiards and I am extremely content with what I have achieved, and there’s no need for me to prove anything more to anyone. I am quite happy with the way things are now.

Coming back to billiards, is there anything more you would like to achieve, something like the biggest break ever?

Big breaks do matter in billiards and you can set your limit, but I think the game is all about consistency. If you are consistent, the breaks will come.

Veteran Arvind Savur has been your mentor. What do you think of his contribution?

What I am today in the game is due to Arvind Savur’s guidance. He has not only been my coach, but also my guiding spirit. He knows what I should be doing. We have that kind of chemistry. Whenever he tells me to play a shot in a certain way, I am able to do it exactly the way he wants it. We are completely in sync with what we want. For me training under Savur and learning from him has been a huge experience. He also instilled self-belief in me. He always told me, ‘you always believe in yourself that you have the game and talent to beat anyone.’

Do you think your success will draw a lot of youngsters to the sport?

Any sport needs not just one but many icons. We need multiple champions in every sport, only then can we call ourselves a sporting nation. One Pankaj Advani alone is not enough.

Any advice for young cueists who wish to emulate you?

Believe in yourself and be passionate about what you are doing. If you realise that you have the gift for the game, make full use of it.

What is your motto in life?

Let us not go through life, but let us grow with it.

* * * PANKAJ ADVANI -- FACTFILE INTERNATIONAL

2009: World professional billiards title (Leeds); Asian billiards title (Pune).

2008: IBSF World billiards title — point format (Bangalore); IBSF World billiards title — time format (Bangalore); Australian Open billiards title (Melbourne); Asian billiards title (Myanmar); 6 red snooker team title (Pakistan).

2007: IBSF World billiards title — time format (Singapore)

2006: Doha Asian Games gold medal

2005: Red Bull team snooker title (China); Asian billiards title (Pune); IBSF World billiards title — point format (Malta); IBSF World billiards title — time format (Malta)

2003: IBSF World snooker title (China). NATIONAL

National snooker titles: 3 (2003, 2007 & 2008)

National billiards titles: 3 (2005, 2007 & 2008)

Junior National snooker titles: 4 Junior National billiards titles: 7 MAJOR AWARDS Padma Shri — 2009 Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna — 2006 Arjuna Award — 2004 Rajiv Gandhi Award — 2004 MAJOR RECORDS

■ The youngest Indian and Asian to win the World professional billiards title.

■ The only person in the world to win: the World professional billiards title, the IBSF World billiards (time format) title, the IBSF World billiards (point format) title and the IBSF World snooker title.

■ The only player in the world to be the reigning champion in all possible major billiards championships: the World Professional Championship, the IBSF World Championship (time format), the IBSF World Championship (point format), the Asian Games and the Asian Championship.

■ The only player in the world to win twin titles (point & time formats) at the IBSF World billiards championships — not once but twice.

■The youngest Asian to win the World snooker (18 years) and the World billiards (19 years) titles.

■ Has won the maximum number of IBSF World titles — six.

■ The only player to win three Asian billiards titles.

■ The only player to win three World titles while still in his teens.