Pankaj Advani is an Indian sporting giant. And it's difficult to fathom the gigantic nature of his sporting success. The ace cueist, who is only 34 years old, has 23 world titles under his belt " the most recent of which came this month in Myanmar where he won the fourth straight final in 150-up format at IBSF World Billiards Championship and then went on to capture the team event title in World Snooker with Aditya Mehta.
Advani's trophy-laden journey began quite early, starting with the IBSF World Snooker Championship in China, at the age of 18. Since then he has ruled the IBSF circuit with trophies in both billiards and snooker " an extremely rare occurrence. Snooker and billiards require different techniques and styles but Advani has managed to stamp an authority on them at a same time while his contemporaries prefer playing in one format.
And yet despite his mammoth sporting success how much do we know about the man behind the champion? All the literature that is available on Advani over the internet is littered with questions about the secret to his success, reasons behind the lack of popularity of cue sport in India, his future plans and so on. But what really makes Advani the person that he is? Who resides under the layers of skin?
When we met the Khel Ratna awardee, the first question was about what is that he has never been able to convey to the people who follow him. It may come as a surprise but the cueist dropped his guard almost instantly in the sit-down interview.
"If there's anything that has not been properly communicated to the people who have followed me is sort of my life story," Advani told Firstpost. "The struggle that I went through, how it all started. There have been people who have asked me about how I got introduced to the sport but the struggle that I had to go through during the initial phase of my career, all that has not really been told much." Cue sports invariably have a sense of elitism attached to them. This is not a sports that resonates with street fighters. And while Advani may not be your typical rags to riches story, his family and him had to endure stiff challenges before the trudging on the path of success.
"It's a general thing that when you are a nobody, it's extremely difficult to garner support, especially in India. Not only in case of funding but moral support as well. I remember the first time I went to represent India in World Billiards Championship in England, obviously I wasn't funded by the government as I was not amongst the top eight in rankings and that was fine with me but there was absolutely no support from any quarter and my mother had to break an FD (fixed deposit) to take care of my expenses," recalled Advani.
"My father passed away in 1992 and my first international event was in 1999, those 7-8 years were very tough. We shifted from Kuwait in 1990 and after my dad's passing, my mom took the conscious decision to raise both her children and giving up her job. So financially it was a very difficult time and I started playing the game and wanted to pursue my passion. The best part is that mom supported me and I felt that those were the times when you don't get support you could go the other way. But my family stood by me and gave me the push. And then everything changed for me when I won the world championships in 2003."
How much has his life changed? We know about the world titles but it's the recognition that has touched Advani.
"I use to be scared of travelling in my young days. Maybe it was just because I had a very negative outlook. Maybe because I was hassled whether it was at the immigration or elsewhere, they will ask 'where you going, what sport is this'. Today when I go to the immigration, they almost want to take a picture and they are like 'happy to see you'. So, life's great that way. It's great to have recognition for your hard work and achievements."
Every professional athlete gets defined by their sporting success. They get so engrossed in the work they do that sport also shapes up their personality. Especially in the case of elite athletes. Often elite athletes are branded 'selfish' as they put their sporting goals above everything, in many cases even family. It's not surprising that they even put the social animal within them on a pause and so did Advani when he got out of touch with other realities of life, but time and age have showed him that there's more to life.
"The sport has given me identity and has shaped my personality but there's more of life than sport and now I have realised that."
Advani says his training sessions are now more about quality rather than quantity. But what has also changed with his progress as a professional athlete is his outlook towards life.
"I am typical Leo (sun sign) having born in July. Probably that has helped me professionally as well. I always wanted to be the best. As a person, I was very stubborn but over the years I have understood that it's important to compromise, it's important to listen to other person's view. It's difficult but it's also exciting as I am constantly evolving as a person. Learning has always been there for me with all that travelling, competing but it was all one dimensional. Over the last few years, I have grown as person and I enjoy that."
However, he has not lost the hunger for victory. And exhibition of that came early this year when Advani clinched the 15-red Asian Snooker title. It was a silverware that was missing from his cabinet despite all the world titles and helped him complete a career grand slam in cue sports. His motivation behind the win gives us an idea of what makes him the beast that he is.
"I had lost four finals earlier. This time when I was going for the tournament, I decided I will just give it my best. I started the tournament slowly and just about qualified. In the knockout stage, I was the 24th seed, the last seed. I wasn't playing well in matches, but I kept in mind that it was not over and continued fighting. There were comeback wins in quarters and semis. On the day of final, I had high fever and I was advised to not play but I was not going to give up. I went ahead and won the championship. Sometimes, it is about how badly you want something and how much you are ready to sacrifice for it.
"So, people often ask me how you keep winning titles. Sometimes it's not about technique and skill, it's about how much you are ready to give mentally and physically."
ASIAN SNOOKER CHAMPION My trophy cabinet is now complete Never worked so hard in my entire career to win a title. Had to fight back in most matches and even high fever during the final! NEVER SAY DIE pic.twitter.com/n6FodmTUbO
" Pankaj Advani (@PankajAdvani247) June 22, 2019
It's two decades that Advani has been active in the international circuit and the majority of this time has been uber successful which also led to him being conferred with Arjuna Award and Padma Bhusan including two Asian Games gold medals. But every athlete faces a dark phase that breaks them to some extent. For Advani, that time came in 2006 when he wanted to give up on the game. But then there's family.
"At a couple of times I have felt that I actually wanted to give up the game. Once in 2006, when I was going through a rough patch and again support wasn't coming in consistently. My elder brother, Shree, who is a sports psychologist came down from Australia and he did a program with me. A couple of sessions on how to program my mind and how to perceive things differently and then I went to Asian Games in December and won gold in English Billiards singles and again, life changed for me."
Life has changed a bit more for Advani now. He now also has Cue School by Pankaj Advani to take care of. An initiative to make cue sports accessible to school students and find the next world champion. But don't think we are anywhere close to the end of life story of Advani's playing career. He has more titles in his sights and we won't mind it.