Snooker is going global. That’s the message being received loud and clear as more and more ranking events are being staged outside the UK, and year on year the professional ranks are taking on a more international feel. India is on the brink of a snooker revolution and at the forefront are the rising talents of Aditya Mehta and Pankaj Advani. The pair made huge leaps for Indian snooker recently when they both qualified through to the final stages of a ranking event, the International Championship which will take place in China at the end of October, and in doing so became the first Indian players to make a venue since Yasin Merchant lost out to Mark Williams in the last 32 of the 1996 UK Championship. I caught up with Aditya just before he jetted off to his homeland for a well-earned break before resuming his season later this month.
Congratulations on qualifying for the International Championship, you must be excited!
Yeah really, really excited actually! It’s always been the first target to get to a venue so now that’s out of the way I can focus on doing well at a venue and there’s even tournaments before the International so I’d like to do well in them and peak at the right time.
This looks like being one of the big ones to win this year, it’s got the same format as the UK and there’s big ranking points and prize money at stake so it must be one of the big targets this year. Is it a major? What do you consider to be a major?
When you’re ranked 70 or 80 in the world everything’s a major! To get to a venue itself is a big thing and obviously the journey doesn’t end there but I feel like I’ve achieved something good in getting to a venue, and I’m not really stressed about how big the tournament is or what kind of ranking points are available. The money is big obviously and that could help because the sponsorship situation isn’t that good right now for me so it would be good if I could at least get past the wildcard round and maybe win a match. I think I need to play a match to play Bingham. So I’m looking forward to it but it doesn’t really matter how big the tournament is, I just want to enjoy it.
It was also news on the day you qualified that compatriot Pankaj Advani also made the venue so I guess that’s the biggest day for Indian snooker since the game was invented over there!
(laughs) Yeah, to be fair yeah! Actually him qualifying the session before me gave me a little bit of a boost as well, to match him. It’s always been like that in our careers, I’ve always tried to get to that level because he’s been ahead of us for so many years and it was another one of those moments where it took me back to our junior days. He kept on raising the bar and we had to keep matching it. And great credit to him to come here in his first season and get to a venue. It’s very rare, I’m sure there are very few people that have done that so it just shows what kind of self-belief he has in his ability because he’s not the most orthodox snooker player when it comes to what you see on tour, so it obviously took a lot of guts and self-belief for him to get there and I’m happy to have someone to push me now on the tour.
What’s the reaction been like back home to the two of you qualifying for this event?
Well it was good but it was at the same time as the Olympics, I think it was just ending. We did get a lot of good press and people were excited, especially the snooker fraternity which is really really excited in respect of us getting to a venue and maybe bringing the game back home. That’s probably the biggest thing right now, to take professional snooker to India and this is a big big step that we’ve taken, I just hope that the federations and World Snooker obviously make the most of it and get the big guns to India.
Brandon Parker was at PTC3 and he popped into the media centre for a bit and he mentioned the fact that you and Pankaj qualifying for this makes it very difficult to justify not holding a ranking event in India, so I think it looks good from that angle.
We’ve tried obviously for the last few years but we didn’t have anything to back it up. When you want to have a ranking event you need to have that local talent so now we have something, it looks good.
You started the season well because you reached the last qualifying round of the Wuxi Classic and the Shanghai Masters before then qualifying for the International, so what do you put this run of form down to?
I absolutely don’t know because I just go into every match hoping to win one more, one more, and keep going. I think it was a lack of experience and maybe a lack of self-belief in the first two final rounds where I lost out to Jamie Cope and Mark King because they were both close games, and I think it’s just that tiny bit of belief that you need to push you over the line. I just want to enjoy what’s happening at the moment because I’m working hard and I know that I’m doing the best I can do as far as physical and mental conditioning is involved, and I work really hard on the practice table and practice as much as I can and then the results just come. It’s not like I haven’t done it before, I’ve been doing this for 4 years, but it takes time. So I’m happy that it’s happening now.
I saw you in the qualifiers for the World Championship when you faced Xiao Guodong. It was a very high quality match and Xiao was pretty unstoppable so even though you lost 10-4 you must have taken some encouragement, more than the score line suggests?
Yeah definitely because I know him so well because we practice in the same place and when he starts scoring heavily it’s just frame after frame he puts you under it so I knew if I let him off to a flier he’s going to really punish me. But being 8-1 down after the first session I came out second session really focussed on just getting a few more frames and getting myself back in the game and I did that because I had a couple of 70s and a 140, which you don’t expect when you’re 8-1 down to anyone. So that obviously gave me a bit of confidence and it rattled him as well which was good to see. It was also really important to get that first round win against Andrew Paggett because I’d never won at the Worlds in a best of 19 and I played well in that one as well so overall that ended the year on a good note, and that probably helped me when I went to the Asian and won it.
Yes you went on to win the Asian Championship soon after so how was that event?
Well to be fair when I went back (to India) after the Worlds I was actually quite drained out because of the whole season and I didn’t really want to play. I played an event straight after the Worlds in India and I didn’t have any motivation to play that one but I went through the motions and got through it and immediately after that one I had to fly to Qatar for the Asian, and I wasn’t in my best condition. But the good thing about the Asian is that you have the group stages of 7 players, so you have 6 matches to get your teeth into the tournament. That really helped me because I went there and started training. I did a bit of running and I got on the practice table and every match I could see a little bit of improvement, but I only peaked in the quarters and semis which was the perfect time and I can’t really ask for more. I beat Hossein (Vafaei Ayouri) who is the current (Amateur) World Champion in the semis and I just played really well in that one. So the entire experience of going from having a really bad patch to winning the Asian gives you a lot of confidence. When you’re down, all you’ve got to do is hang in there and try your best and things happen.
Taking you right back to the start now, when did you first pick up a cue?
When I was 12. Usually in the club where I play you’re not allowed to be in the billiard room until you’re 18 years old but they obviously had to change those rules seeing as what was going on in the world. My dad was a member of the committee so he got me in and started training me. I did about 3 years under various coaches in my club and then I started doing well in the local circuit and there was no looking back after that.
What was the snooker scene like in the area that you grew up in?
It’s very good in Bombay. There are loads of clubs and all of them have good club level, state level and national level players and we had this yearly club championship where you go to 4 or 5 different clubs and play in the team event. Every team would have 1 or 2 top quality players; you had Yasin Merchant in one of the clubs and Sarang Shroff in another one so there’s a lot of National Champions in the state that I come from. So it was really good because my club put me into those events when I was 14, 15 years old to get experience and that obviously helped a lot.
When did you become aware of the professional scene and the big name players?
Not very soon actually, it took me a lot of time to get to know about this. I think it was only when I was about 17 and I played the World Under 21s and I got to the quarters. That’s when we had the idea of coming to England and training here at the academies and taking part in what at that time was the Challenge Tour, which is when I was about 18. That was a real eye opener because the quality of snooker was just extremely extremely high and I obviously didn’t do very well the first couple of years. But it was a great experience and that’s when I was really opened up to professional snooker and I think it was about 3 or 4 years from then that I got my big break and turned pro.
So unlike those of us who grew up in the UK you didn’t have a favourite player who influenced you that you saw on TV growing up.
Yes, the youngsters here have such a great opportunity when they see all these players on the BBC from the time they’re young and obviously it becomes a little easier because the benchmark that is set is so high, whereas in India when we saw this level of snooker we were already 18-20 years old and it takes a lot of time you know; it’s easier when you’re a kid to pick it up but once you come to that age and you realise that oh my god the levels are much, much higher, it makes you a feel a bit like “Where am I?” you know?!
Your first year on tour was the 2008/09 season, how did you get on?
I think there were only 7 events that year, and it was quite a bad start because I was losing first round in the first couple of events. Like I said I’ve always worked really hard even though things have never come really easy in life, and fortunately the 3rd event, I think it was the Grand Prix, I got to the 3rd round and even got the high break prize for the 140 I had so that was really great and I went on to make three 3rd rounds that year. From only 7 events that year to move up (the rankings) from 96 to 70 is very rare but I obviously dropped off (tour) at the end of the year.
So in that first season on tour was it difficult to adjust to the level of players and the tables you were playing on?
Yeah definitely but whenever I’m in England I’m always based in the academies, like now I’m in the Star Academy and earlier the World Snooker Academy, both in Sheffield, so I’ve always had the really good conditions to practice on so that was never really an issue. I think the only issue I’ve ever had is belief, because even though I can play good snooker and it’s not like I wasn’t good enough in 2008, it was just a lack of experience and lack of belief whether I was good enough or not. Like I said when coming from India and you’ve not seen this level of snooker, when you’re thrown into it it’s a lot to get used to and mentally to accept the reality that you’re here and you’re competing with these guys, so I obviously took a bit longer to cope with that.
You’ve won a number of medals in the Asian Games. UK snooker fans will remember these games for taking Ding away from us causing him to miss the Premier League finals and then looking very tired when he returned to defend his UK title! As you’re a multiple medallist can you give us non-Asians an idea of how big this event is and how big snooker and other cue sports are within the games?
Yeah it’s just massive! For us the Asian Games is absolutely incredible, it’s like the Olympics to be fair because for cue sports it’s the only games we’re a part of. Well, that we were a part of because I don’t think it’s in the games any more.
Yeah I think we’re going to be in the Asian Indoor Games from the next time, but coming back to the Asian Games, that platform is unbelievable and nobody in their right mind would miss that for anything. For me personally I have 3 Asian Games medals now, one from 2006 and two from 2010 so especially the singles bronze where your finalists were Ding and Marco Fu, Dechawat (Poomjaeng) who was the World Amateur champion and me, it was a pretty big league to be part of and it was a great achievement for me. Even in the team event to come home with a silver medal, in India the Asian Games are given so much credit so it’s something you never want to miss and I think Ding deserves a bit of a break when it comes to that because he definitely needed to be there.
I’ve seen you play a number of times now and I’d say you’ve got a very fluent scoring game, a good tactical game, and you look very at ease on a snooker table and it makes you easy to watch. How would you describe your style of play?
I think I’d say my personality comes out in the game because I’m a very quiet and introverted sort of person and I don’t really socialise that much, I keep to myself and like I say, exactly what you see on the table is how I am off the table. I keep it simple, keep it easy and I’m not too extravagant, obviously as people will see I won’t really be potting balls like Judd and Ronnie. I have my own style and it’s something that’s developed over the years because I’ve found the need to be mentally much calmer to control my mind because I’ve never been one of those really positive outlook sort of persons. I’ve always been very introverted, a bit on the negative side when it came to your mind, you know. So there were a lot of things I’ve needed to work on to get better in snooker and the whole process has created this sort of game that you see. I don’t really know how it looks but the first time I actually saw that break that someone uploaded, the one that I had against Jamie Cope, I saw myself going around the table and I was surprised myself at how calm and calculated it looked. So for me when I see that, I just see my personality come out on the table.
(The joy of reaching the venue is plain to see at the end of this excellent break!)
Have you set yourself any goals this season?
Well the first goal was to get to the venue and thankfully now that’s in the bag, so maybe one more venue and just to keep playing well and enjoying the game because there’s no point in playing if you’re not enjoying it. That’s key I think. The money will come and the ranking points will come and it’s all part and parcel of the game. No long term goals really, one tournament at a time and we’ll see how it goes.
How much of your time do you base yourself in the UK?
I live here basically. I only go back to India when I have to play a tournament back home which is maybe something related to my sponsor or maybe a major ranking event. That’s the only time I’ll go back home so usually I’ll be spending 8 or 9 months of the year here.
Has that been the case since you first turned pro or before you first turned pro?
No. When I first turned pro I started doing that and then obviously I had 2 years off in between and I was at home a lot more. But ever since last year I was here for the whole year and now for the next 2 years it looks like that as well.
I’ve got to ask this question because it’s been talked about a lot on the Snooker Island forum and it’s about foreign players in general. Have you had any issues with visas and how bad is it for foreign players in getting access to the tournaments because of bureaucracy?
Fortunately for me I’ve never had any problem with visas. The reason behind that is that you need to be really smart with your paperwork and your tax returns and bank statements and stuff like that. Everything’s got to be really in order in your home country, and then you don’t really have issues with visas. But now things are changing and the rules are changing in the UK and it does become really tough when you’re at that age; 18 to 21 year olds will have a lot of problems in getting visas for some reason. But I’ve never had any problem and my dad has been really smart about it. My files are well kept and whenever I’ve applied for any visas it’s usually a positive response.
I can say that when it comes to the other players I know what the problems are. It’s got a lot to do with your finances and tax papers and everything has got to be really in order because it doesn’t take a lot, one small mistake somewhere, for them to reject your visa, which is really unfair.
You’ve not had a great PTC campaign so far this season. What’s your view on the PTCs and the format?
I don’t mind them at all really. I really enjoy the PTCs it’s just that you get a few tough draws to start with and then you don’t get the seedings and you always keep running into the top players all the time in the first round which is not ideal! I’ve had Mark Williams, Ali Carter, Yu Delu played really well on the day and Rory McLeod. So they’re all top top players and I can’t really complain if on the day they were better than me. This last one (PTC3) I had Jimmy White and obviously he’s been struggling against me recently for some reason, and then I had Ali Carter in the 2nd round so it’s not getting any easier and I’ve got Stephen Lee in Belgium. There’s no complaints really because if you’re good on the day then you can beat the top players, just on the day they’ve been better than me and I’ve got to accept that. I’m doing well in the ranking events and a lot of people would love to trade places with me when it comes to doing well in the PTCs or the ranking ones, so I’m not complaining and whatever happens happens, and I’ll just keep trying my best.
Do you have any thoughts on the direction the professional tour should take if you bear in mind all of the qualifying is currently done here in the UK? Do you see a time when there could be a separate European and Asian Tour for example?
Well there could be but obviously that’s looking way, way forward. For now where the direction is going is extremely good and it looks very promising for anyone who wants to play professional snooker. They wouldn’t think twice before entering now whereas a few years ago you’d be thinking does it really make sense? So we’re obviously moving ahead and the more Asian players that come through, the more tournaments we’ll have, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. When it comes to a separate tour, that’s obviously something really far away I would think, but I enjoy the way it is now. Sheffield is a great city and I get to live here and obviously play 60 to 70% of my tournaments here, it’s just really, really expensive to live on your own abroad. Apart from that, everything’s great!
The last section of questions is all about Indian snooker so I’ll start with: how aware are the people in India that it’s the birthplace of snooker?
(laughs) Well everyone knows, but we’re not bragging about it yet! We’ve got a long way to go before we can really call it the birthplace of snooker. We need to create some great talents and then maybe we can make use of that whole birthplace thing but you know everyone loves the game, obviously it’s not that popular but it’s getting there.
Getting back to what we touched on earlier and Pankaj (Advani). Do you and him have a strong rivalry dating back to your junior days or are you good friends who inspire and feed off each other?
It’s a mixture of both really. Obviously when we’re travelling together like now here in Sheffield we see each other a lot more and we’re together a lot more so obviously there’s a more friendly atmosphere, but when it came to us playing as juniors and when we’re playing in India it’s professional, basically. At that time I think the rivalry was much bigger, now I think we both have relaxed a bit in life and we’re just focussing on our own lives and we just want to do well I guess. I don’t know what his perspective is, but I just want to do well and maybe stay ahead of him. I mean he’s ahead of me now in the rankings but I’d like to have that little battle all the time because it’ll make things a bit more interesting.
Did you have any other rivals or were you two the dominant players of your age group?
I only came into the elite in the juniors in my last 2 years when I was 19-20. There were quite a few youngsters who were really really good and they’re still around, they just haven’t obviously made the push to come to England and try out on the pro tour because a lot of them also play billiards, like Pankaj, and they prefer to have that whole billiards scene. There was a guy Sourav Kothari, and then there’s Lucky Vatnani and obviously Lucky has been here last year, and a lot of good juniors, but I think in the last 4 or 5 years it’s been me and Pankaj and it’s been pretty interesting and there’s still a long way to go.
Of course Lucky was one who had visa issues last year wasn’t he? He missed a lot of tournaments.
Yeah and like I said it’s all about paperwork. It’s government bureaucracy and you have to make sure that your end is safe. It was very unfortunate in his case because he was at no fault at all and he had a really unlucky time. It would have been torture for him because I stayed with him for the rest of the year and he just couldn’t get over the fact that he’d missed 4 or 5 months of his maiden professional season.
What’s he doing now, is he trying to get back on tour?
Yeah he’s in the PTCs so he should be back next month I think and play in the rest of them, the EPTCs and the PTCs. And he’s another one who really loves this game and loves the tour and loves to play in England, so I’m pretty sure he’ll be back here playing again.
What’s the standard of the amateur game in India compared with the amateur game over here?
When it comes to the amateur game I think India is pretty good. If you see our record in the Asian and the World IBSFs we always have a player pushing into the quarters or semis like Thailand, Thailand does really well in the IBSF. I think in the amateur game, we’re pretty good. As for the push to professional, that just takes snooker to a different level.
How many Indian snooker players do you think we’re going to become aware of in the next 5 years? Are there any names to look out for, youngsters who are looking promising?
There’s not too many youngsters at the moment. There’s a couple of them, one guy called Laxman Rawat who’s been doing really well and if he gets the right support and backing then I expect him to make the move here soon. But there’s a couple of them but they do need a lot of work and support and funding, so I don’t want to talk too soon because I don’t know how many of them will be able to make the push. But the thing is if professional snooker goes to India then you could have a whole host of them just waiting to get a crack at professional snooker.
Every time there’s an event in China they always have a wildcard round and of course the professionals hate that, but it sounds like if there’s a ranking event in India there NEEDS to be a wildcard round.
There’s going to have to be yeah. Obviously like I’ve said the level is not as high as China. I don’t think the professionals are going to have to be too worried right now!
It was the same in China wasn’t it when they started about 10 years ago? The wildcards were considered a walkover.
Yes exactly. That’s how the game grows up isn’t it, and snooker needs China and maybe in 5 years’ time they’ll need India. I think it’s to the benefit of the players in the long run that they play that wildcard round and help promote the game in that country.
Is billiards still much bigger than snooker in India?
Yeah because there’s just so many great players. I mean we’ve got multiple world champions all over the place so it’s obviously more popular and the billiards players are more popular. I think to be fair that in any sport if someone does really well in their discipline then you’re going to get popularity in your country so the fact that the billiards guys have dominated the circuit for so many years then that’s why it’s the most popular cue sport in India at the minute.
Do you play billiards at all?
Yeah I do, you know maybe for half an hour every 6 months! I started off with billiards to be fair; my first couple of years was mainly just billiards because that’s how we usually start in India. I’ve had some decent breaks, in practice I’ve had a 285 and I’ve had 185 in a match, so I’m not that bad. I can hold a cue!
What’s the general attitude towards cue sports in India because obviously it’s an indoor sport and India has a hot climate for most of the year, are the clubs more empty in the hot season and when it’s monsoon everyone starts flocking to the clubs? How does it work?
(laughs) I don’t know how it works but as far as I know in the club culture, everyone is in every day! It’s that type of game where after work you just want to head straight to the club and chill out with your friends and play a couple of games and go home at dinner time. And usually in India dinner time is pretty late so you’ll have people hanging around the club till about 9 or 10 at night. So that’s how it is all year long, it’s just those passionate guys who really enjoy the game and they just come and play, it’s not seasonal at all.
Are the clubs generally air conditioned?
All of them are air conditioned; you can’t play without the air conditioning!
I’ve got a question from one of your fans who posts on the forum and he says that he’s seen something I’ve said on the forum talking about Chinese players always taking on a difficult pot when faced with a choice of that or a tough safety and he wants to know if the Indian players have any idiosyncrasies like that, an approach that they have which is maybe unique to them?
I’m pretty different to most Indian players because the strategy when it comes to India is to not take any risks. There’s just no risk taking! And because of the billiards background of most players the safety is so good, so tight. When you see a good opportunity to put someone tight in then that’s the first option. The long balls are pretty rare, I mean apart from the obvious long balls we don’t really go for too much. We play a really smart sort of calculated game, and you’ll see that a lot in Pankaj as well. I do tend to go for a few silly balls but that’s because I’ve played here so much but when you see Pankaj you see a completely different type of snooker where he’ll put you in so much trouble, you’ll end up giving him something easy. So that’s usually how we play, we’re like day and night from the Chinese!
I’ve seen from Pankaj that with his cue action he doesn’t seem very confident over the long pots but close in he’s absolutely deadly.
Yes it really is admirable what he does with that technique. It is something that you’d never believe.
You’ve just won the Arjuna award. Can you tell us what that’s all about?
It’s basically a sporting award. There’s two big sporting awards in the country, there’s the Arjuna and then there’s the Khel Ratna which is the highest sporting award in the country. So the Arjuna is basically given out to any sports person who has performed consistently well for the country for the last 3 or 4 years when it comes to winning medals internationally. The Khel Ratna would be something that goes to the incredible performances like an Olympic gold or something like that. So I’ve been given the Arjuna award because I’ve done really well at the Asian Championships and the Asian Games and I’ve also been two time National Champion now for the last two years so it was a really great honour, and it’s an award that every sports person would love to get their hands on because it comes directly from the President of the country. It’s a great ceremony, you get to meet all the great sportspersons of the country and the experience is just something that you’ll never forget.
So are you now a household name across India?
Not yet, I think I’ll have to get my hands on the Khel Ratna for that! Or snooker would have to get really big really quick, but hopefully I will be soon if I can do really well on the tour.
How far do you think you can go in the game? Ranking titles? World titles?
Again that’s looking too far ahead in the future and that’s something I’m not really interested in doing. I’d love to take it just one year at a time. I know I could be a lot more positive in thinking that way about what I can do but I enjoy being here, you know in the moment and doing what I’m doing right now and letting things happen. So obviously I have targets and maybe in the next two years to be in the top 50 and that’s something I’m focussing on at the minute but beyond that is just do as well as you can and be as focussed as you can and believe that ranking titles or anything can happen. I mean especially seeing Rod Lawler win the last PTC, if that doesn’t give someone belief then I don’t know what will! That man waited 20 years for his first title and that’s just incredible!
Thank you very much for taking the time and very best of luck in the International and for the rest of the season.
You can follow Aditya on Twitter here.