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Relied on experience and temperament to win two titles in Doha in consecutive weeks: Ace cueist Pankaj Advani

Mumbai, October 18: After remaining out of action for nearly two years due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which brought the world to a standstill, India's ace cueist Pankaj Advani kicked off the international calendar with back-to-back titles in Doha last month.

Advani first defended his Asian snooker title after defeating Iran's Amir Sarkhosh 6-3 in the best-of-11-frames final in the Qatari capital.

Pankaj Advani retains Asian snooker titlePankaj Advani retains Asian snooker title

That was followed by 24th world title when he clinched Six-Reds Snooker World Cup with a hard-fought 7-5 victory over Pakistan's Babar Masih.

Pankaj Advani clinches Six-Reds Snooker World Cup Pankaj Advani clinches Six-Reds Snooker World Cup

The current India No. 2 in an exclusive interview with Mykhel said it was pleasing to start the campaign on a winning note, but also believes the rustiness due to the lack of national and international events means the sportspersons will take some time to find the rhythm.

The 36-year-old cueist from Bengaluru touched upon topics like life in the lockdown, injuries, friendship with cricketer Robin Uthappa, the role of his elder brother Shree Advani and his coach Arvind Savur in his career, and his recent marriage to celebrity make-up artist Saniya Shahdadpuri.

Here are the excerpts:

MyKhel: What were the challenges you faced during the COVID-19 imposed lockdown as there was no sporting activity for almost a year? How did you keep yourself motivated?

Pankaj Advani: It has been a very difficult phase for the entire human race to deal with something like this. No one had ever imagined that they'll lose their loved ones to a pandemic and get restricted to the confines of their homes. We had to remain indoors, no physical activities and socialising. Only phones and gadgets kept the people in touch.

In the first few months, I wasn't even thinking about the sport because everyone's health and safety was of paramount importance back then. At the same time, especially for the sportspersons - who travel a lot - the lockdown was easier to deal with because that's something we would have wanted anyway.

We could stay at home for ten days or a week, relax and do nothing. But when the lockdown was imposed for the second time it was difficult and that's when I realised that patience is one thing that'll take you forward. Things don't happen overnight, you don't become champion overnight and don't get success and adulation overnight.

It was really difficult for everyone, especially youngsters, to come to terms with one-and-a-half years of doing nothing. Not knowing when the competitions will resume. So it was really difficult. I would go for a walk and keep my mind stimulated by playing some online games, helping out a little bit in the household as there were no domestic aides available. Personally, I feel I became a better human being but of course, professionally, we've all suffered.

MK: Did you interact with fellow cueists or athletes during these tough times to know how the other person was dealing with the tribulations of the COVID-19?

Pankaj: Our fraternity is quite closely knit, our rivalries are healthy and we're good friends off the table. So, amongst the players, we kept in touch with each other quite frequently during that phase, especially before the tournament started. You know Robin (Uthappa) is a good friend of mine and my neighbour in Bengaluru. We've been in constant touch during those tough times.

I've even been reaching out to fellow players in the snooker fraternity to be connected and find out when the next event was starting because our tournaments took a little longer to begin.

For Robin, I'm extremely happy for he was instrumental in helping Chennai (Super Kings) win the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2021. So, I'm really happy for him.

MK: Did you face any hardships adjusting to the rules kept in place when you competed in Qatar?

Pankaj: There were a lot of formalities and documents to be submitted. So that was a little painful in that sense , ut then we all understood why all that was put in place. The organisers had to be cautious of who's entering the country because there're fewer positive cases there. We were at the hotel where the competition was being held. So we didn't have to go out a lot, although there wasn't any restriction on our outside movement.

Also, there was an application that we had to show wherever we entered. The app was just like the Arogya Setu app we've at home which monitors if we're in the safe zone or not. So, yes it was different this time, but we've to adapt and we (as athletes) know that probably better than anyone else (it was for our own safety).

MK: Do you think this break has also affected the quality of sport?

Pankaj: This is a game of muscle memories so it'll take a long time for us to gain the original rhythm. The quality of the game isn't going to be as high as it was for a while. The reason why I won in Doha is that I relied on my experience and temperament, courtesy of my elder brother Shree Advani who is a sports psychologist. I just played through those big points well and got through those tricky situations well. Everyone seemed rusty but seemed excited at the same time. So everybody seemed hungry to give their best.

MK: How do you deal with the pressure of expectations being the flagbearer of the sport in India?

Pankaj: There're always expectations, I think the expectations that others have from you are easier to deal with than the ones you've from yourself. There're certain standards that you have set for yourself and if you go below that, you start doubting yourself. So, you've to be at your best at all times and take every match and opponent seriously. You can't get complacent for you never know when your opponent will surprise you, and that's the kind of mindset I've. I also understand the responsibility on my shoulders, being the flagbearer of the sport in the country and enjoy it.

Being the face of the sport in the country, the responsibility lies upon our shoulders to popularise the sport as well. I think the sport really needs to grow in our country. There's no dearth of talent because there're so many good players in the country. I think the only aspect we lag behind is the television coverage for that'll help the sport gain popularity. But that's a question for the federation to answer.

MK: What else do you think is a hindrance for the sport to reach the masses?

Pankaj: There's also a perception that needs to be busted is cue sports is a rich man's sport. But the thing is most of us who're representing the country at the national and international level hail from the middle class.

The 'cue' that we have aren't very expensive, in fact, it costs far lesser than badminton and tennis racquets because it's a one-time investment and could be used by a lot of people. Yes, every sport has its share of struggle but that's part of every athlete's life. We all work hard, don't we? With corporate support and help from the federation, our sport can do wonders. Also, a franchise-based league like the other sports are having can just help the game reach the next level.

MK: How do you approach any big game? Are there any special preparations you make?

Pankaj: Everyone has nerves ahead of big games or matchups but I try to enjoy them and embrace the occasion. Instead of trying to run away from it, I try to accept it for that's what we work so hard for. I know there's pressure but then the pressure can be enjoyed too. I've developed this mentality over the years and with the experiences. Even my brother helps me a lot in this direction as he could break down those moments where I did wrong and how I can improve it after thorough analysis.

MK: How important was the role of your brother in your formative years?

Pankaj: Shree's contribution has been immense in my success. He's helped me at times I was really low on motivation. He's helped me play big matches well and not let anxiety get the better of me in crunch situations. He's been instrumental in my consistency as a player, he has made me resilient.

MK: Which has been your most special achievement?

Pankaj: As they say, your first love is always special. For me, the memory of winning my first world title on October 25, 2005 in China will always be special. Next week, it'll be 18 years exactly and I've got very fond memories of it. It was Diwali, and I remember calling back home when my family, my coach and the club members were bursting crackers and celebrating my victory as well as the festival of lights.

I remember the huge reception at the airport and was taken in the huge motorcade around the city upon my arrival. I would love those memories to come back soon on an occasion like that.

MK: What're your plans for the near future?

Pankaj: We've selection trials for the World Championships, the one I won 18 years back. This time the championships will begin in Doha by November end, so my aim would be to finish in the top two from the country to qualify. Then we've national championships as well in the next two to three months. There's quite a packed calendar now and a lot of excitement is there as well. Also, I'll be travelling a lot between Mumbai and Bengaluru as I'm dividing my time between these two cities now and it's fun.

MK: You recently got married. How's your second innings going?

Pankaj: Marriage is a new phase I've entered so I'm enjoying it too. I used to think it was only the sport that kept me consumed for so long, but things have changed after my marriage to Saniya, as I have a lot more to look out for on a personal level.

MK: From whom do you take inspiration in your life?

Pankaj: From within my sport, I take inspiration from my brother Shree and my coach Arvind sir. Arvind sir has played a huge role in my success. He took me under his wings without charging a single penny to date. He never won a world title himself so he realised his dreams through me. Rarely, you find such generous and kind-hearted people like my coach.

And outside this sport, I love tennis and the legendary Roger Federer. Just the way he plays the game and speaks at the interviews is inspiring. He doesn't take himself seriously and that's what I love about him. He brings a certain class and grace to the sport that I could relate to. Also, his humour is simply amazing.

MK: Not much is talked about injuries player goes through in cue sports. How did you combat those injury concerns in your career, also what would be your message to the budding athletes who feel it's the end of the road for them after sustaining an injury?

Pankaj: It's a good question, actually there're two aspects to it. Earlier, as I was speaking about COVID-19 there were few youngsters I've been in touch with during the lockdown. One of them went into depression thinking he won't be able to compete anymore. And these are the youngsters who've never participated in an international competition.

That's when I talked to them to help them understand that I've been there done that. I've seen it's difficult to deal with injuries, especially the mental part of it. I try and explain to them that life's not just about sport, it's much bigger than that. We need to cherish it. Success and failure are part and parcel of life.

I've suffered an injury in 2018 with my upper back which kept me out of action for nearly six months. Even now I am battling stiffened upper back and working hard to keep myself fit. Injury is a part and parcel of our sport as well. But people hardly realise that we're also prone to injuries. Bending up and down, keeping the hands and fingers stretched at long times does take a toll. A lot of cue sports athletes face back-related injuries in their careers. Now I've ensured that wherever I'm I keep myself fit and understand my body.

MK: What do you do in your free time?

Pankaj: I love bowling, I love watching films and listening to music. Whenever I'm on international flights I watch films and on domestic flights I prefer listening to music be it Bollywood, English or Pop. Before the match, I've my pre-match preparations like visualising but after the match, I try to keep myself busy by watching comedy movies, or shows on the television. I've also started keeping a track of the latest developments in the world through the news to keep myself updated (smiles).

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Story first published: Monday, October 18, 2021, 17:35 [IST]
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