Comeback on cue: 57-year-old Geet Sethi 'hooked' to billiards again

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It started with Geet Sethi feeling stiff in his body while leaning forward at the dinner table one evening late last December. A life away from sport, he realized, had much to do with it.

The marker at the Ahmedabad Sports Club was the first to receive a surprise call from the 57-year-old who'd retired from billiards in 2013 and never shown up anywhere near a playing table since. Rupesh Shah, a current Indian name in cue sport, formed the next line of enquiry.

"Where's my cue, bugger? I need it back."

Rupesh was dumbfounded. Sethi's cue had been lying unused at the club for the past five years so Rupesh had taken it for himself, chopped the stem to suit his height, adjusted its tip and begun using it at tournaments. He was certain that Sethi wouldn't need it again. Sethi too thought so up until then.

With his old cue chopped and changed beyond use, Sethi bought a new one for himself. Even that lay untouched in his home in its fresh brown wrapping for two months before he firmed up his mind and spoke to his wife and kids about his decision to return to the sport.

"I realised my body had lost its agility," Sethi tells ESPN. "So, I was like 'gosh, this is no good'. I wanted to get some exercise, bring some rhythm back into the body so that's how it started and I got hooked to the game again."

One of the most accomplished names in Indian cue sport, Sethi belongs to a discipline where age, much like in chess, isn't among the most defining factors. Players can be pushing well past what would be considered their sell-by date in most other sports, but still be making the business end of tournaments.

So, five years after he quit the sport, Sethi picked up his cue and with just 35 days of practice, flew to Leeds to compete in the World Billiards Championship, losing eventually in the pre-quarterfinals to England's David Causier. It was also, incidentally, the last tournament he had played before concluding his four-decade association with the sport, in October 2013.

"I was a little rusty when I came to Leeds but with every match I only got a bit better so by the end of it, it seemed to be alright. I got a couple of hundreds, which isn't bad. I'm in a happy place and will play more now. I don't know about winning titles but if I can make a 300 break here and there that should be good enough."

No stickler for the 'comeback' label, Sethi promises this is just the first of many tournaments he looks to play in the months ahead. He does not have his calendar all chalked out just yet but makes feverish mental notes of a busy 2019 first half.

"I think the touch is there. What's not there is the consistency which only comes with lot of practice and tournament exposure. Once I play two to three more tournaments I should feel better," he says.

In the intervening years, Sethi maintained very little contact with the sport. Besides shuttling between his hometown Ahmedabad and Mumbai for his travel company commitments and looking into the administrative functioning of his wife's school, he had also immersed himself in the functioning of Olympic Gold Quest, a not-for-profit athlete support programme which he co-founded along with former badminton champion Prakash Padukone.

Beyond just playing the sport, Sethi also sees his return as an opportunity to catch up on everything, from hanging out with other international players, to all of the circuit gossip.

The billiards scene, he says, is largely unchanged. The Peter Gilchrists and Mike Russells have gone nowhere. But there is a visible change of guard that he's willing to take note of.

"There are quite a few new, young Indian players on the scene, which is heartening. More importantly, they aren't just there, they're taking charge too. We had four Indians in the quarterfinals at the World Championships and Sourav Kothari going on to win the title beating Gilchrist. So the old guard is slowly easing out and the new stepping in. That's the way it should be."

Starting out when he was 13, Sethi had little formal training in the sport. His earliest lessons were from the marker at the Gymkhana club in Ahmedabad where his father was a service member. It did not take him long to grow an obsession for the sport and turn into the sophisticated, dapper face of non-cricket sport in India through the 90s.

Today, he says his perspective towards the sport and tolerance towards his own results are not quite the same.

"For someone like me coming back after such a long time, results don't affect me the same way as it would when I was in the thick of things. But you know, no matter how little you want results to matter, once the adrenaline kicks in, you automatically want to win."

This unexpected urge to return to competitive sport, he confesses, has also been an epiphany of sorts.

"I didn't miss the sport at all in these years that I was away from it. I thought I'd had enough. Forty years is a long time. But now that I'm back I realise there is something unique about playing sport. You can't match that feeling doing anything else."