Cueing against the tide

Personality

Aditya Mehta is fighting his way back after a neck injury laid him low. DH photo/ Srikanta Sharma R

Watching Aditya Mehta play during the ongoing selection trials at the KSBA, you know something is completely wrong with the cueist. There’s a good four to six inches gap between his chin and the cue stick and his stance is almost upright. Even casual club players wouldn’t be playing with such a cue action and stance. The common practice is to have the chin touching the cue and the upper body parallel to the table, giving the cueist the best view and balance to strike the ball.

“It’s not bad,” jokes Mehta, trying to resurrect his career that was wrecked by a neck injury. “I’ve got an aerial view. The long ones I struggle with. If it’s within three-four feet, it’s okay because vision doesn’t really matter. But as soon as it goes past 6-8 feet, your long thin safeties, the long pots is when I really struggle. If I try to go too low for them, I risk aggravating the neck injury.”

“It’s not great, you don’t get the timing. You don’t get that solid feeling. You are sort of relying on a little bit of talent and cutting around some corners, not playing certain shots which is okay at this level but at the international level or even amateur international level or pro-international level, it’s completely different. I’m still managing to win because of my experience. I have the odd good match. In total since January, I can say I’ve played well only in four matches. Yes, I’m counting them.”

Sports, as witnessed during the two Champions League football semifinal second leg battles, can give immeasurable highs and brutal lows. Until 2014, Indian Oil cueist Mehta was the country’s premier snooker player, he reached the final of the 2013 Indian Open — a world-ranking event — scored the coveted maximum break of 147 points in the Paul Hunter Classic in Germany in 2014 and even won the gold at the World Games. On all three instances, he was the first Indian to accomplish such feats. He was also beating ace Pankaj Advani consistently, something which many cueists in the country were struggling to do.

While he didn’t win any events on the pro tour, he managed to stay inside the top 50, a commendable performance considering the enormous competition. Talented, determined and having the courage to grind it out on the pro circuit, the 33-year-old was flying high. Then suddenly, his career came crashing down.

A neck injury that had troubled him in the past resurfaced in July 2014. So severe was the pain that he collapsed in his room in Manchester and had to be taken for emergency treatment. Scans then revealed a disc in the neck had been damaged. Mehta, riding high on adrenaline, ignored the condition and continued to play despite severe pain. Popping painkillers like they were vitamin tablets, Mehta kept pushing himself before his body gave up in 2016. An MRI then revealed that three discs had been damaged, bringing his career to a shuddering halt.

“I just couldn’t play,” recalls the Gujarati. “With all that I even won two medals — Asian 6-red bronze and Asian Team Snooker silver. I should really not have gone back to the pro tour that year. But I was depressed. I couldn’t take the fact that I couldn’t do it anymore. I did not want to give up that opportunity of continuing to be a pro. I had a 2-year card, I thought even if I have a worse first season, I can pick it up from the second season. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have because things got really worse. In 2018, nine months I was off the table.

“I didn’t what to be a quitter but sometimes giving up or at least taking a break is the smarter thing to do. You get stronger and go back stronger. I went back too quick. Pro tour is hectic with long flights to China, the train travels. I needed to say no, but I didn’t. Now, I’m paying the price. It’s hard to take because I could’ve built on the gains of 2013 and 2014.”

As the saying goes, “when it rains it pours”. Problems kept compounding for Mehta. His mother broke her back and was bedridden for nine months while his father had his left leg amputated. Diagnosis for his own neck problem also took a long time with many doctors unable to comprehend how a snooker player — a sport not very taxing physically — could be hampered by career-threatening injuries.

“This was the biggest problem I had. Until 2018, nobody really told me what the problem was or what I really needed to do. Regardless of how many physios, chiropractors, osteopaths, spine surgeons I consulted, nobody had a blueprint of how I could recover from the injury. Nobody understood. Eventually, I found a sports physio Anuja Dalvi, who is working with Live Active Physiotherapy. She was good enough to figure out with all the data I was giving her what the problem was and how to treat it. She’s been super helpful. Like I said I’ve been having neck issues for 10 years now and I’ve seen multiple physios but nobody gave me long-term guidance. This has been a big change in my life.”

Mehta is injury-free now, having rested and rehabilitated. But he’s just “five percent” of what he was during his pomp. Despite that, he is prepared to take another major gamble. He will be taking part in the Q-School that starts on May 18 at Wigan, hoping to earn his pro tour card again. Mehta knows it is a long shot but he wants to take up the challenge rather than regret not attempting one.

“I literally have no idea where my cue is going, it’s not even going in a straight line. But something inside me tells me that I have to give it a shot. I’m not in the right condition and frame of mind to be playing Q School but it happens only once a year. If not now, I have to hold my breath for one more year. I took a long time to decide on this but in the end, I decided that if I don’t go, I won’t be a happy person for the next year. I don’t mind going and losing. I don’t mind losing badly and coming home. I’m not going to expect anything. I’ve tried to put my game together over the last two years and it’s still in shambles,” Mehta signs off, hoping for a miracle to uplift his broken career.

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