Dealing with change isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Then again, if you’re addicted to success like your morning cuppa, nothing’s impossible.
After his last World Billiards title in 2009, Pankaj Advani had a lean phase that still included the 2010 Asian Games billiards gold and Asian Billiards title in 2010 and 2012. But the detractors were at it, considering the person under the scanner was a seven-time world champion.
“Winning in Asia was a massive moment for me. But obviously, expectations are so high when I don’t come back with a world title. It can get a bit harsh but people have to realise that I’m not going to win always.
“It was also a transitional phase where I was making adjustments with my techniques, mentally, and it’s taken a while for me to come to terms with that.”
When Advani saw his nemesis Mike Russel pitted against him again for the World Professional Billiards title in October, people close to cue sports would have drooled at the prospect of a silent war at the Northern Snooker Centre — the venue where the Indian had beaten his senior counterpart for the crown in 2009 in the same timed format.
This time though, the 27-year-old had built a cocoon of comfort around him in England after the initial adjustments, and though it seemed like another lonely battle he waged miles from his team and home, it was a situation he was familiar with.
The decision to play snooker on the professional circuit in England had Advani spend a lot of lone time in Sheffield. He found family in the Athis, who were more than happy to host the young champion. The acclimatisation was so complete that in a few months, the die-hard vegetarian was even comfortable feeding their pet cats a fix of canned fish, albeit with a twitched nose and a quick dash to the basin to get rid of the smell.
Billiards and snooker are poles apart which make his achievement special. Though Advani came into the tournament having barely played any billiards and under tremendous pressure for skipping the International Snooker Championship in China that he had qualified for, the experience collected over the few months was a relief of sorts, at least in the head.
“I practiced a bit back home in Bangalore but not too much. In fact my practice partner (Balachandra) Bhaskar told me later how amazing it was to have won without even putting in the hours,” he says. “It’s always difficult to switch from one version to another. But what the snooker stint did was it made me tough mentally, and I was able to cope with any pressure situation that came my way. That’s why being in England has helped me, not only my game but also in terms of getting tougher as I live by myself.”
“Playing on the professional snooker tour taught me one thing — acceptance, knowing you’re not the best in the world on a particular day. The fact that you can accept and take everything in your stride to bounce back the next day is something I’ve learnt after going there.”
The evening before the day of the final, Advani called his brother, Shree, a sports psychologist and his lifeline — to collect his thoughts and ‘program’ his brain for the final. A song in the shower was to vent the anxiety, followed by the intricate laying out of the next day’s attire, nothing was left.
“Shree told me to focus on things I should be doing, rather than the negatives. Many practical things have helped me nail this championship,” he says.
“I have great respect for Mike Russel because he’s pure genius and probably the greatest to have played the game. He told me if he was in my situation, he’d have probably played in the snooker championship. It was really ironic that I met him in the final… and won.”
He knows change is inevitable. In a few days, he’ll be back in Leeds, this time visualising snooker in the loo.