‘The win is a redemption for me,’ says the new world billiards champion Sourav Kothari
Sourav tells us about his World Billiards Championship journey — from almost losing his cue to winning the crown
- Published 2.12.18, 9:05 PM
- Updated 3.12.18, 9:38 AM
- 6 mins read
He almost lost his cue on the way to the 2018 World Billiards Championship in Leeds, but when we met Sourav Kothari he looked a “happy mess”. With his first World Billiards Championship trophy adorning his BL Saha Road residence, 28 years after his father Manoj Kothari had won it, the 34-year-old is savouring every moment of the win. “I’d have been gutted had this been my third world final loss in three successive years. It’s back-breaking. So, this is a huge monkey off my back,” said Sourav, in a chat with t2.
Has the world championship win sunk in?
Sourav Kothari: (Smiles) No, honestly, it hasn’t. It’s tough to win the world professional billiards title. You have the likes of David Causier whom I beat in the semi-finals and Peter Gilchrist (in the finals). David Causier is a beast on the table and relentless. To have beaten him in the semi-finals, being 500 points down is something huge for me.
Psychologically, a lot of things change when you step over the line. I used to say that the Arjuna Award is a huge monkey off my back, but this is a different kettle of fish. It is a redemption for me from a lot of demons. Now I think I will enjoy myself more and play better. When you win a world title, you instil fear in the mind of your opponent.
The biggest thing is emulating my father (Manoj Kothari)... to have won the world title 28 years later. It is actually a record; father and son world champions in a sport. He won the World Amateur, an amateur world billiards title. I was six at the time. There is an amateur world billiards championship which I am going for, and there is the professional world billiards championship which I won.
And you had almost lost your cue on match day!
Sourav Kothari: The most unbelievable incident! I landed at Heathrow Airport and had to catch an underground train to King’s Cross, and from there I had to catch a National Rail to Leeds. On my way to King’s Cross, suddenly the train stopped midway and we were asked to alight. This happened at 9.30 in the morning. I had a heavy bag with me, about 18kg. I had my snooker cue, which was again very bulky, and I had another bag with me. I left my cue inside and took the big bag and the other small bag, thinking I would collect it after I had placed my other luggage on the platform. I was on the platform and the doors shut!
We just carry one cue and the cue is the extension of my arm. Luckily, there was a man at the rear end of the train. I shouted out to him, but the train left. I froze. I ran with that heavy bag to the stationmaster’s room, at the cost of spraining my arm. He asked me if I was the boy who had lost his cue, and I heaved a sigh of relief! Those 15 minutes were the deadliest 15 minutes of my life.
What did you immediately do after winning the world title?
Sourav Kothari: The whole Indian team was there. Everyone was like: ‘We have to go for a party’. So, we all went to an Indian restaurant and had a small dinner party.
I have two waistcoats which I carry with me. The one with the Indian Tricolour was not fitting me. I had never played in the other waistcoat. So, the entire championship, I played in my new waistcoat.
In the finals, when I was 200 points up and two minutes were left, you know that you have won the world title… there was no way Gilchrist could have come back. And instead of thinking ‘I am the world champion’, I was thinking what was I going to wear once the match got over, because I couldn’t be wearing this!
There was a huge applause when I took my cue and literally threw it on the table, went to my cue case where my phone, wallet and room cards were, grabbed them and ran to my hotel which was next to the venue.
On the way to my room, I did a video call with my parents and I could just see them crying. No words were exchanged. They were crying, I was crying. They waved at me and I waved at them and then we hung up. That one minute of unspoken conversation was my world title… to see them like this, crying. I was a mess… I changed into my old waistcoat, put on my bow tie and in 10 minutes, I was back at the venue.
The trophy was tough to pack. I wanted to be there personally. That took an hour. Emotionally I was drained. By the time I was in bed, it was 3 or 4 o’clock and I had to wake up early the next day and catch a train to London because I had a holiday planned. I had a great time. They drank beer out of the cup.
Your father must have had special words…
Sourav Kothari: He thinks I should have won the trophy much before. He was like, ‘Now I can die peacefully’. My preparation for any billiards event has been playing snooker. It improves your potting skills. Before this world championship, he said I should not be seeing the 22 balls. He didn’t let me change my lifestyle one bit… no pandal-hopping. I was playing from 2pm-10pm, feeling suffocated. Now I am thinking, thank god, I didn’t go out! (Laughs)
Looking back, what do you think went wrong the last few times?
Sourav Kothari: In the previous world championships, I always faltered when I thought about the end result. In 2008, I was in Bangalore playing the quarter-finals and there was a shot on the table which was slightly difficult but doable. I bent down, leading by 300 points, just 45 minutes to go — I should have won that match with Pankaj (Advani) — and I am thinking if I get this shot, I would probably win the world title and win it in the same hall that my father had won his. In that millisecond, I missed my shot and went down to lose that match. I was aghast.
With Gilchrist in the 2016 final, again I was consumed by the fact that I might win the world title. It is so difficult for a sportsman to bring himself together in the moment and not think about other things. The greats, say a Roger Federer, they bring themselves to the moment.
This world championship, I reached the venue before Gilchrist. I usually like to see the table, get my eyes accustomed to the table. And my mind is being bombarded with thoughts… I have to play well, I should not miss an easy shot, if I don’t do it this time I don’t know if I’ll ever win a world title. And I realised I was going back to the same pit. I thought to myself that this couldn’t continue. I got up and started chatting with everyone. I wanted to be distracted. My mind was not letting me stay still. I went to the venue only once it was toss time and surprisingly felt so relaxed when the match started.
I realised that to withstand that kind of pressure, you have to numb yourself. I took a five-minute shower as opposed to a 45-minute one! If these thoughts are limited to the game, it’s fine, but it’s never just that.
Does it stem from self-doubt?
Sourav Kothari: Never self-doubt. All I need to take care of is my mind, train it to keep it still. I am not a sprinter. I’d rather run a marathon. I have discovered something amazing… in our sport or any sport, if you have a period of half-an-hour or 45 minutes where you can go into a state of trance, where you feel no pressure, no happiness or enthusiasm, no jubilation… so numb, that even when the scores are called out, you cannot hear them... it’s great.
For me, I faced that with David Causier. When I was 500 points down, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just playing, but if you ask me whether I remember any shot that I played in that 300 break, I will say no. It is eerie. The entire 45 minutes is such a big blur for me. I was so lethal, I decimated him. It’s almost like you can see yourself play from top. I am so consumed with that numbness now that I want to prepare to reach that zone for an extended period of time in every match. I was unaware of who I am. It’s addictive.
Were you listening to anything before the finals?
Sourav Kothari: Shah Rukh Khan’s song I am the best... before the finals. The feel of the song is so energising. Nothing to do with the lyrics (laughs).
Besides tournaments, what else is keeping you busy?
Sourav Kothari: There are some people who want to make movies on billiards. Suddenly, there are people getting in touch with me for documentaries. I am happy that it appeals to so many of them… taking up a different sport as a medium on the silver screen.
So, acting offers?
Sourav Kothari: Yeah.... If it is a documentary, I don’t mind. Suddenly people are thinking The Color of Money kind of a movie. If it can document the evolution of the sport, that is brilliant.