Very, very few showcases in India house the ultimate piece of silverware—a world championship trophy. Yet, there's an unassuming teenager studying commerce at a Bangalore college, who dotes on his mother for all she has done for him, with three of them—a world snooker prize from 2003 and a recent double from the world billiards championships in Malta. Pankaj Advani bagged a billiards-snooker double at the national championships in Mumbai, added the Asian billiards title in Pune and then claimed the world prize on the point-format in Malta before becoming, at 19, the youngest to win the traditional time-format billiards crown. Having already won the world snooker prize in 2003, he became the only one after Malta's Paul Mifsud to win world crowns in both cue sports.
This capped an impressive run against a good field that included past winners, with a fine victory in the final against compatriot Geet Sethi, whose seven world billiards titles radiate an aura that is hard to ignore.
Sethi had identified Pankaj as world champion material more than a couple of years ago and has no hesitation in praising the teenager's feat. "He is extra special because he has performed at the highest level in both snooker and billiards and won three world titles before he even turned 20. I wonder how many others from any sporting discipline can boast of such an achievement," Sethi says. "The best thing about Pankaj is that he possesses excellent demeanour on the table and away from it and has an exceptional mind. He can finish with many more world titles in the next two decades."
And Pankaj knows how important that is; mental strength is a highlight of his game. "Everyone can play cannons and pot balls but only those who can control their minds make an impact at the highest level," Pankaj says, taking time off his preparations for upcoming examinations. "Of course, sometimes the mental effort leaves me drained but I guess I enjoy pressure while it lasts. It makes me give off my best. It is easy to play well when leading but to be able to pick yourself up when trailing gives you something to write home about," he explains.
At least three times this year, Pankaj has fought back from the brink. First, he rallied from 1-3 to beat Devendra Joshi 4-3 in the Asian championship in Pune. Then, he staged a comeback from 1-3 to beat Sethi in the point-format world championship in Malta but when he recovered from 0-4 to stirringly script a 5-4 win against Australia's Robbie Foldvari, he really had demonstrated his never-say-die spirit that backs his skills. "If you can win those matches, you are convincing yourself that you can go on to win titles," Pankaj adds, recalling the toughest of his encounters in the past few months.
He doesn't bat an eyelid while explaining how he does this: "I apply reverse psychology. I tell myself that the worst thing that could happen to me is to lose. I do not have a professional psychologist to talk to but I pick up a lot of this by reading, observing and interacting with champions. Nearly everyone talks about visualisation techniques. I learnt much of it by trial and error. It may not be the best method but it has worked for me."
Adds his coach, former national billiards and snooker champion Arvind Savur, "Two or three factors made me pick him up for attention when he was young. Watching him play at the juniors' table, I could see that he was very talented and had a wonderful eye just like his elder brother Shree. Pankaj was keen on the game, quick on the uptake and could respond, react and reproduce shots."
Pankaj himself admits that there have been some question marks against his technique. "It is something that I have covered up with my mental toughness. Of course, there is room for improvement but I reckon that technique is more or less fixed and you can only make minor adjustments. I guess one starts feeling a bit insecure when you become the player to beat; such thoughts creep in automatically but I have told myself that I will take life one day at a time."
Such single-minded focus is the envy of his rivals. "His dedication to anything he takes on is remarkable," Savur says. "If he is playing, he closes his mind off to all else. If he is studying for his examinations, he will focus on that and shut out the game. Such concentration is necessary for champions. Ignore all else and focus on the task on hand."
Pankaj waxes modest, saying he was not born with an ability to concentrate hard all the time. "I developed that over a period of time," he says. "It is not as if I am thinking 10 shots ahead at a time. I am happy to be planning for two strokes at a time and playing one at a time. Come to think of it, I have not made any real big breaks and I guess I will get them in the years ahead."
There has been some talk of how he may have to choose between billiards and snooker in the long term since not too many have been able to achieve consistent success in both games. The champ refuses to consider the scenario. "I will play both since I am performing well in both. It may seem like my recent focus on billiards has affected my snooker somewhat but I know I can do well in both sports."
Savur is equally bullish. "He is equally adept at both; he has the basics right in both sport. Only Geet was like that before. I have asked him to focus on five or six days of snooker and concentrate on billiards for one day." Professional snooker is the richer sport and Sethi backs Pankaj to succeed there.
"Professional snooker, which offers more money, demands a lot of hard work, the ability to overcome disheartening results and frustration. He has the talent and the mind to make it on that circuit," says the ex-champ.
Meanwhile, Pankaj keeps widening his horizons, looking beyond idols at home and beyond cue sports. "I draw inspiration from someone like (tennis ace) Roger Federer who won 49 of his 50 matches this season. It is nice to be on a roll like that in my own sport. You have to have the adrenaline rush, the hunger to keep winning, to keep getting better," he says when asked about his own superb streak this year.
Truth to tell, the mantle of triple world champion rests lightly on his young shoulders. India has not thrown up too many world champions. You may not even recognise Pankaj when he is away from the table, his face may not grace advertising hoardings. Yet, at just 19 years of age, he has three world championships to showcase. Cherish them.
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