Behind Pankaj Advani’s success lies a tale of grit, patience, and single-minded determination. India’s billiards and snooker champion shares his journey, ups and downs, and discusses the importance of mental health in sportsmanship

Pankaj Advani, India’s billiards and snooker champion, couldn’t have asked for a better year. After several delays due to the pandemic, he finally got married in the month of January. But that’s not all. Advani has just returned to India with his 24th World Title from the recently concluded IBSF6-Red Snooker World Cup, where he defeated Pakistan’s Babar Masih in the finals. A few days before this, he had taken the gold at the Asian snooker championship too.

“Winning these championships was like living a dream. My wife, Saniya, has proved to be lucky for me,” says the 36-year-old cueist on a phone call from Bengaluru.

As a child, Advani played sports like badminton, cricket, basketball, and table tennis fairly well, but not with any passion. “My only ambition as a child was to be a pilot, so I could travel all over the world. This is also a passion that my sport has given ample opportunities to indulge, besides the laurels,” says Advani.

Not many know that in a way, both Advani and his elder brother, sports psychologist Shree, are responsible for each other’s success. It was Shree who introduced the young Pankaj to billiards and snooker. And it was Pankaj who, when he was awash with nerves, turned to Shree for motivation and gave his older brother the idea of becoming a sports psychologist.

“Shree is seven years older than me, and used to go to snooker clubs with his friends regularly. I was always very intrigued by what he was doing, and where he was going. So I used to follow him, and was fascinated with the way he and his friends played, and watched them for hours. Then one day, I decided that I also wanted to play.”

Pankaj Advani was barely 10 years old at the time, and also only just about taller than the snooker table. The sight of him with a cue made Shree and his friends laugh. But when, on his very first shot, Pankaj landed the ball straight into the hole, the laughter stopped, and the 10-year-old was hooked for life.

“In billiards and snooker, the onus of the game is on you. There is no opponent, and that suited me,” he says. “I lost my father when I was just six years old, and my mother had to raise us alone. In fact, we had to shift from Kuwait to Bengaluru due to the Gulf war, and my mother also quit her job. She made us understand that you have to be strong and face whatever life throws at you without shying from the consequences. That mental strength helped me master the game, while the thrill of competing and evolving as an athlete keeps me going.”

His name is dotted all over India’s overall sports medals tallies and he has several Government of India awards such as the Arjuna award (2004), the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award (2006), the Padma Shri (2009) and the Padma Bhushan (2018). But his victories are quiet. There is no fanfare.

Advani plays for the love of the sport, but he doesn’t care much about fame and its trappings. “Having been away from the table for nearly two years because of the pandemic, these two back-to-back triumphs assured me that my hunger and competitive skills haven’t diminished.”

It is this hunger that has motivated Advani for more than two decades to put India in the forefront of a sport that many among us know nothing about. But even the best sportsperson can feel demotivated at times, and need help to perform. In 2006, just before the Asian Games, Advani was in a not-so-great mental space, and his brother helped him cope.

“Shree used to take trainings about leadership motivation and success, and he motivated me to the point that I won a gold at Doha,” Advani says fondly about his brother.

Sports psychology not only teaches you to win, but also teaches you that losing doesn’t mean you’re a failure. “That’s the beauty of sports. Sports also help you with valuable life lessons — how to be humble, how to handle situations and relationships and how to appreciate whatever you have achieved with gratitude,” says Advani.

Looking forward, Pankaj hopes to engage with school and college kids to get more people interested in his sport. “I want to change the perception people have towards it since it is as challenging and appealing as any other sport,” he says.