How did you find your passion for Billiards and Snooker?
As a school kid, I was exposed to quite a few sports like basketball, badminton, cricket, table tennis or sports that require physical fitness and involve physical activity and I was reasonably good not that I excelled in any of them. I was an athlete at a decent level. But when I got introduced to cue sport through Shree my elder brother in the year ‘96, the whole feeling was different. I used to call him to Super Club along with his friend but I wasn’t allowed to play initially because I was very short and underage. So, I used to look at the technique, the stans, the grip and everything. Then, I thought I need to actually try it and see really how the sport feels when you play it. So, the first time I put my hands on the table and held a cue and struck the ball, it went inside the pocket and that is how actually my journey began in the world of cue sports and I think, the rest is history.
Which has been your most special achievement?
As they say, your first love is always special. For me, the memory of winning my first world title on October 25, 2003 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.
You have won over 20 world titles and look set for many more… What keeps you going?
I love playing my sport, I love competing and I love my country. Winning for my country gives me immense joy. As simple as that. Playing Billiards and snooker transports me to another world. Even during the pandemic, my hunger never diminished, it only increased.
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?
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 socializing. 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 realized 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.
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?
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 neighbor 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, but then we all understood why all that was put in place. The organizers 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 ArogyaSetu 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).
Do you think this break has also affected the quality of sport?
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 popularize 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.
How do you deal with the pressure of expectations being the flagbearer of the sport in India?
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 popularize 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.
Is it difficult to deal with pressure sometimes?
In sport, You have only that one opportunity, that One moment. Somebody asked me the difference between films and sport and I said in sports you have only one take. In films, you have multiple takes. If you get a shot wrong, or if something is wrong, the lighting is wrong, it can be corrected and redone. But in sport if you lose out on that opportunity it can’t be redone. Now having said that it doesn’t mean that you never get an opportunity to perform in a tournament again, but you have to start from scratch. So, if you lose the semi finals of the finals of the world championship, it means that you don’t have the world title too. So you have to wait and you have to analyze your flaws. You have to come back with the same level of motivation and bigger. And that takes a lot out of Sports person mentally.
What else do you think is a hindrance for the sport to reach the masses?
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.
What are your views on the Olympics? According to you what more can be done? Please share your set of views and suggestions for Olympics?
Olympics is a mega event and a sport like ours must be included as it’s extremely competitive and played by several countries across the globe. It is both physically and mentally demanding and requires tremendous skill and
concentration. It’s up to the international bodies governing the sport to take up this cause. However, I’d like to add that I feel Olympics is not the be all and end all of sporting greatness. Consistency day in day out is what makes a champion great. ‘You are only as good as your previous match.’
How do you approach any big game? Are there any special preparations you make?
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.
Sport teaches a lot. What do you think about it?
In sport, you may lose, but you’re never a loser because there is always learning in defeat and in failure and that is what sports teaches us in life. we go through a lot of ups and downs in our lives. obviously I didn’t see those ups and downs. I mean, I did see them of course, in the early part of my life with dad not being around and going away so early, but otherwise, as a youngster, you don’t understand the meaning of life is until you see it for yourself. You learn from trial error. it teaches you a lot like how to deal with people, how to be respectful, how to play fair and that’s the meaning of sport play. It teaches you to also follow rules, to be disciplined in terms of not crossing a particular boundary or limit, to be ethical. At the same time it teaches you also how to accept defeat gracefully, to be humble even when you’re on top and remember you are also winning at the expense of somebody else or another team. So there are many aspects to it.
If you get any opportunity from Bollywood, will you accept it?
I don’t know if acting is my cup of tea, but anything where the sport is projected in a good and in a positive way or even if it’s about my journey or the game then why not? I’m definitely open to those things. if things happen in the entertainment industry, if people are interested in talking about my journey and story then yes, I’d be happy to explore those options and see where it takes me.
Do you have some stepping into your footsteps in future?
So many young guns doing well- Shrikrishna, KreishhGurbaxani, SparshPherwani, IshpreetChaddha, Laxman Rawat, DigvijayKadian and a lot more! Many of them are medal winners at Asian/World Championships. There’s no dearth of talent in India. Opportunities must be given to aspiring players to make a career out of cue sports. Only the federation can do something about this.
How important was the role of your brother in your formative years?
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.
From whom do you take inspiration in your life?
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 realized 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 humor is simply amazing.
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?
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 realize 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.
What do you do in your free time?
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 visualizing 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).
How active are you on social media?
I’m actively involved in social Media. the people who follow the sport and who understand the game, and also those who are interested in my journey and what I do I like to connect with them, to give them a sneak peek of what I’m doing or where I am. I also create reels on Instagram. On Twitter, obviously it’s more about your opinions, about how you feel about certain topics or even reaching out to fellow athletes if they’ve achieved for the country, congratulating them. So they are very different platforms. Social media is the need of the hour really, everybody’s on social media. I think during the pandemic everybody wants more content on social media.
Any message you would like to share with your fans?
I’d like to thank all those who prayed for me success and genuinely wanted me to get to the top. To all fans, I’d like to say just one thing- believe in your own ability, dream big and do whatever it takes (ethically of course!) to achieve your goal. You can’t win them all, neither will you lose them all!