Advani leads Indian charge

Pankaj Advani and Yasin Merchant, cueists belonging to two different generations but both battle-hardened campaigners, will be itching to lay their hands on the trophy for various reasons, and what better place to do it than the Karnataka State Billiards Association – the capital of cue sports in the country.

Having learnt the finer aspects of the game at the very same place before he attained stardom, Advani has been going through one of his worst years since he burst on to the scene as a precocious talent. Not much accustomed to losing, the Bangalorean who has made several heads turn in astonishment over the last decade with his remarkable accomplishments, has not won a single international title this year -- the first time since 2003 -- a statistic which he will be eager to erase.

Known for his fortitude, the 26-year-old has, over the last year and a half, often has lost matches which you would normally eapect him to wrap up. Blame it on fatigue, lack of motivation or the burden of expectations, the seven-time world champion has struggled to maintain his dominance and his air of invincibility is slowly diminishing.
Although, he nailed India’s first gold medal in billiards at the Asian Games last November, results this year have not gone the way the 2003 winner would have liked. Having said that, Advani, last-year’s runner-up, is used to handling pressure and nothing would give him more joy than triumphing in front of his City fans, a feat which he did with ease three years ago during the IBSF World Billiards Championship when he won both the points and time formats in style.

Merchant, the only Indian to finish within the top-64 ranking of the gruelling World Professional Snooker many seasons ago, is competing on a wild card which was handed out to him by the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India. A two-time Asian Snooker champion, the 44-year-old’s focus may have shifted towards business and family of late, but the Mumbaikar is determined to end a wonderful career on a high.
Despite limited time on the green baize, one thing that should hold Merchant in good stead in the six-day long event that has 11 Indians in the fray is two decades of experience that could prove to be the difference in a field lacking heavy star power.
While both Advani and Merchant will be expected to advance to the knockout stages without much of a hassle, one fellow countryman who could spoil their title party is Alok Kumar. The affable Punjabi has been having a brilliant run in the last 12 months that has seen him break one record after another.

Last November he became the first Indian to win a pool (8-ball bronze) medal at the Asian Games and in March became the first to annex all the national titles when he lifted the 8-ball pool crown. The 43-year-old is also the reigning Asian Billiards champion and his mastering of craft over all disciplines of cue sports -- a rarity -- makes him a definite title contender.

Internationally, Thailand would once again pose the biggest threat with 2008 champion Thepchaiya Un-Nooh and the immensely talented Noppon Saengkham capable of running the distance. While Thepchaiya is the reigning Thai national champion, 19-year-old Noppon has grown from strength to strength in the last three years.
Ireland’s Rodney Giggins, who posted the maximum 147 break in the last edition at Syria, Australia’s 2002 winner Steve Mifsud and England’s Martin O’Donnell have the necessary ammunition to set the stage on fire.

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