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The impossible genius of Advani: 21 world titles and counting

AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR

For someone with 21 world titles in billiards and snooker, you'd think Pankaj Advani would be blase at the sight of another trophy.

Evidently not.

A few weeks ago, he made space on his already-crammed cabinet for the only chunk of silverware he hadn't won up until then - the Asian Snooker Championship title, to complete a career Grand Slam in snooker. It made him the only player in the history of cue sport to win World and Asian Championships in both billiards and snooker across all formats.

Hot with fever through the final, a woozy Advani could barely walk, forget celebrate his win, and ended up spending the next two days tucked in bed. "There were times during the match when I felt like a boxer in a ring, drained of every ounce, and digging into my reserves. It's how badly I wanted this title," he says, with a gasp of mock desperation, "I was willing to do anything."

Now that the one missing title is also home, Advani is suddenly left with nothing to chase. He has a detached view of it. "It puts me in a peaceful place. I can now go out and play freely. These trophies are my license to shedding all inhibitions."

From 2005, when he won his first world title, up until now, Advani has won a World or Asian title every year barring 2011 & 2013. Now, a few weeks away from turning 34, success, he says, has been transformational - from the giddy, floating feeling of having arrived to the calm reassurance of pushing towards two dozen titles. "Earlier, I wanted to prove myself. I wanted the numbers and the titles. Now, it's just about enjoying the feeling."

Over the years, snooker has also evolved - getting younger, fiercer, more varied in competition. Century breaks have also grown in number and magnitude with players turning more attacking in their shot choice. Advani, though, has been a constant in the changing landscape. "I sometimes look at my opponent and wonder 'Wow, this guy has been so lousy through the tournament and suddenly he's playing so well with me'," he says, "I treat it as a mark of respect that others feel the need to play better than usual when they face me. It pushes me."

For such staggering success, it may carry the peril of forgetting the feeling of a loss and the lessons that come with it. He was handed a brief reminder at the Asian snooker team event recently, when he lost a single-frame match 79-1 to Pakistan's Babar Masiha. "Over the past few years I've picked up a helpful habit. Even if I lose a match, I go back to the drawing board and iron out flaws if I think my game wasn't great. Success can get you carried away. You should pause every once a while. I think that's the difference between the old me and the new me."

It's tempting to think that a sport played amid the hum of air conditioners, where players pace around the table imagining straight pots that veer off at right angles, cannot possibly be taxing. Everything about it is calm and undemonstrative - the player lining up a shot with geometrical precision, his opponent waiting his turn in a cocktail dinner look and the audience in a quiet, perpetual state of suspended disbelief. The perception of the sport as sanitized, it could be argued, may be working against the legend of Advani. With no Indian in individual sport who owns an equivalent number of titles , it's almost as if the scope and scale of his success is left without a metric.

"When I reach a final, it may be just another final for others who may say, What's the surprise in him winning anymore," he says, "But I know how hard I've worked to get here. I'd rather be doing what I'm doing now than be on a couch wishing I was playing. This is where I want to be."

Advani is headed into a short break ahead of the pile of big competitions, starting with the World Championships in September. There's no overkill of ambition yet. He plans to ferry his cue around the world for at least another decade. Quick math would reckon that's a dozen more titles.