Pankaj Advani: I am yet to realise my full potential

"It has been an amazing journey and I had never dreamt that I would win so many titles in my career," says Pankaj Advani in this exclusive chat.

Pankaj Advani... on top of the world.   -  S. R. Raghunathan

Pankaj Advani in action.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

When you talk to Pankaj Advani, he comes across as any normal Indian youngster. He likes to spend time with his family, hang out with his friends and is a big Federer fan. The “youngster”, who is now 30 years old, has just pocketed his 15th World title and has won everything there is to win, in the sport. Calm and collected, there is a burning desire inside him to keep going, and keep pushing the limits. In an exclusive interview with Sportstar, Pankaj talks about one of India’s lesser-known sports and what motivates him to outdo his phenomenal title haul.

Question: Pankaj, yet another World title in the bag. Your thoughts on the tournament?

Answer: A lot of emotions, really. I feel excited and happy, but also relieved to end the tournament with a win. I’ve been playing a lot this year. There’s been a lot of travelling and my health hasn’t been great on tour. So it’s always nice to win and add to the tally. As a sportsman, numbers are very important and although they are not everything, you are judged who you are or who you were on the number of titles you win.

Which would you say was your toughest game in the tournament?

That would have to be the final and rightfully so, against Zhao Xintong. Most of the participants there would agree that the two best competitors made it to the very end and that was one of the things that made it the biggest challenge in the tournament. I am honoured to have been part of such high quality competition.

You had thought of giving up your snooker tour card to concentrate more on billiards. Any particular reason?

When I was playing snooker in England, it was just snooker and just England. I felt I did not get any time to play billiards or travel anywhere to do so. At that time, I thought about giving up the card. I was in England for seven months and used to feel very lonely. I am a vegetarian and away from family; it was a huge sacrifice to make. After coming back, I feel I have been able to strike a balance between billiards and snooker. I have not given up snooker, I’ve just put myself in a position where I can play both. I love both equally.

How has your stint in the professional circuit helped you as a player?

It has added more dimensions to my game. Obviously it is a good feeling to win but if I am able to reinvent my game, to convert a weakness to a strength, those things are absolutely fulfilling as a sportsperson. The England stint has definitely helped; it has made me tougher as a person. I have had to play matches at odd hours, sometimes without even eating anything. So, all this has toughened me up.

To someone who is not familiar with the technicalities, what are the differences between the amateur and professional versions of the sport?

I think you learn quite a few key things. When you’re playing at your highest level, whatever that is, you’re not afraid to play the right shot. Under pressure, that is very difficult and you want to get away with a shortcut. You become more fearless and confident about doing the right thing once you enter the professional side. You’re sharper, and you have to get value out of every shot you play. Going professional has really opened me up as a player and a person.

When you began your career, who were your biggest influences?

My coach Arvind Savur has played a huge part in my career. He’s my inspiration and the one who has taught me all the finer points of the game. He continues to be there for me whenever I need him. He actually rejected me the first time I went to him because I was too short. But later he overlooked that and took me under him. Both of us gel well and whenever he tells me something, I know exactly what he’s talking about. It’s almost like a telepathic understanding.

What is the state of billiards and snooker in India right now?

I think a lot of people want to play and are playing it. The fact that we have a thousand participants in the national championships every year tells you that people want to take it up seriously. In big cities, there are facilities. In smaller towns, there needs to be more accessibility. I also feel that once it is televised, it will be easier to attract sponsors and make people understand the game. They will realise that this is actually a very competitive, skilful game. I am sure our federation is working on these aspects.

Do you see any up and coming stars in the current crop of cueists in India?

There are a lot of promising youngsters in the country right now and given the time, they will come good. There’s Jaiveer Dhingra, Dhwaj Haria and Aditya Agarwal, all of whom are doing really well. The quality is increasing every year, so there is a lot of hope.

Geet Sethi had announced his retirement recently. Any words on him?

It is very unfortunate that he will not be playing competitively anymore. He has been a great role model. He took Indian billiards to new heights and his commitment and discipline to the game is something we all can learn from. Hopefully we will carry forward his legacy.

So, after 15 World titles, you have won everything there is to win in the sport. From where do you derive the motivation to keep going?

I think I can still improve in the game and that is very exciting for me and that keeps me going. I know I am yet to realise my full potential. There is so much you can learn, playing a sport; and not just in the sport technically but also the lessons it teaches you. Travelling, interacting with a lot of people, how to deal with losses. It has been an amazing journey and I had never dreamt that I would win so many titles in my career. But now that I have that many, I feel I can do much more. Not that I’m getting greedy, but I just want to enjoy it right now!