For a change, Vidya Pillai hasn't had to count what it cost her to win a trophy.
Posing with her modest third-place prize at the far end of the table alongside fellow Asian ladies snooker winners in Chandigarh on Friday, Vidya wore a smile of mild relief. It was her second international snooker medal in less than a month's time. It also meant she had some money to spare for the next tournament.
In March, the 39-year-old Vidya became the first-ever Indian female snooker player to make the World Women's Snooker Championship final. The feat went largely unnoticed. Her silver-medal show in Singapore fetched her £2,400 (about Rs 2 lakh) in prize money, but travel and accommodation alone cost almost half the sum. For a player with no steady source of income or sponsor backing, that's a tidy sum to shell out for a single tournament. With India hosting the first-ever Asian Ladies Snooker Championship from April 12 to 14, at least Vidya's $585 (about Rs 38,000) prize purse didn't come after braving red-eye flights or forking out from savings.
On both occasions, she fell to familiar foe and former world champion, Hong Kong's Ng On Yee.
"I should've gone 2-1 up at the start," Vidya tells ESPN about her recent 1-3 loss to On Yee in the Asian semi-finals. "She made the most of whatever chances came her way with small breaks, so credit to her. I was playing with exceptional safety and at some point whatever defensive shots she tried went in her favour and she ended up potting. Also, the tournament was compressed into three days, which meant we played three league matches in a single day. So the quality of play was a casualty."
The mother of a five-year-old, Vidya has been playing the sport for about two decades now -- her successes defying age, hurdles and circumstances. The starting point of her fascination for the sport was being treated to a snooker parlour trip in Chennai by cricketer-friend Hemang Badani to celebrate a Ranji Trophy century. She was 21 then. In four years' time she went on to win her first senior national snooker title in 2003. The men's section too had a first-time winner that year: a teenaged Pankaj Advani.
Despite her late start, Vidya blossomed into a well-known name on the Indian women's snooker circuit, winning at least a dozen-odd national titles and finishing with a bronze medal at the 2010 and 2012 world snooker championships.
As we settle down for a chat in the playing hall at the Indian Gymkhana in Bengaluru, Vidya appears composed, almost zen-like. But her recent World Championship final defeat still rankles. She feels a different outcome could have redeemed the sport -- a prisoner of skewed perceptions in the country -- a bit at least. "It would have maybe made some noise and thrust women's snooker in India into the limelight, even if for a while," she says. Despite taking a 4-2 lead, a bunch of unforced errors caused Vidya to fall behind in the final before she clawed back to force a decider. After increased safety play by both players, Vidya let go a gilt-edged opportunity, fouling on the final pink and handing victory after an epic nine-hour contest, which spanned two days, to the Hong Kong woman.
The event was staged outside England for the first time in over two decades. This itself was made possible due to a recent restructuring exercise -- which saw the World Ladies Billiards and Snooker, responsible for the women's tour and the world ladies' ranking list, come under the governance of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the governing body for both billiards and snooker worldwide. The winner's prize check -- £5,000, more than four times the sum won by 2016 world champion Reanne Evans -- too was a heartening departure from the past.
Vidya featured in the World Championship for the first time in nine years. She had made the quarterfinals in 2008. Playing a 'rich man's sport' has hurt her cause. "I couldn't afford to travel to England every other year for the World Championship," she says. "This time, thankfully, it was in Singapore. When I approach people or organizations for sponsorship, they ask me why I need money when I'm playing an elite sport. Often we miss out on tournaments because we don't have the kind of money to be able to fund our expenses."
Undecided on the tournaments she will play in the months ahead, Vidya says: "I don't set goals. At least I haven't done so in the last five years and it has worked for me." Beyond the joy, every top-three finish also lends her hope of making it to another tournament. "Fortunately, I made the World final last year," she says. "It has helped cover my expenses for the championship. With what remains, I can at least afford to travel for another event."
At an age when most sportspersons would be away from competitive action, immersed in coaching or commentary roles, Vidya picks the edge longevity offers in the cue sport as a huge advantage. "At 39, I think my career is booming," she says. "As a mother it's tough to leave your child behind at home and travel for tournaments. It does play on your mind. But once I enter the playing room I can switch off from everything. I can walk in and forget the world."