Cueist Aditya Mehta's journey from career-threatening neck injury to World Team Snooker title
On 25 September, 2019, almost a year and a half from when he thought his career was over, Aditya Mehta clinched his first world title with Pankaj Advani in Mandalay.
Mehta was playing in UK and on the world tour when he was struck by his injury.
The one thing that kept Mehta going despite several doubts over his career was the love for the sport.
For the last five years, he saw pain as an enemy protesting against his career. His big achievement has been in becoming friends with the pain.
In 2014, Aditya Mehta collapsed on the floor of his Manchester flat, unable to bear with the excruciating pain in his neck. The doctors in UK said that it was more of a muscular problem and after a month-long recovery program, Mehta was back to snooker. A decision that he regrets till date.
This was the phase in his career when Mehta was at his peak and enjoying the sport. He had reached the final of the 2013 Indian Open, scored the coveted maximum break of 147 points in the Paul Hunter Classic in 2014 and had broken into top 50 rankings. The run was so sweet that he was ready to beat the pain and play.
So by popping painkillers and changing his technique a bit, he carried on. The pain, however, ceased to go away. In 2016, he underwent an MRI scan after consulting with his doctors once again. The scans revealed that he had degenerative discs in the cervical spine. The doctors advised him that physiotherapy would keep him going. That is until one day in 2018 when he had to stop, as his body stopped agreeing with him anymore. It was a time when Mehta felt that his career was finished.
On 25 September, 2019, almost a year and a half from when he thought his career was over, the 33-year-old cueist clinched his first world title, winning the IBSF World Snooker Team event with Pankaj Advani in Mandalay.
And this world title, literally, means a world to Mehta who has seen may lows in the last five years including his parents' deteriorating health. While he struggled with his injury, his mother fractured her back and his father had an amputation on his left leg.
"I did not get the right help and it never got better. From 2014 to 2018, I suffered through it (pain). I took pain killers and changed my technique but nothing was going my way. In 2018, I thought I was finished in terms of my career. At the end of the season, I had to stop and re-evaluate what I wanted to do. Because health is a life long thing. Fortunately, after getting correct help, on and off the table, I feel like I am in control of it now," said Mehta after returning from Mandalay.
Mehta was playing in UK and on the world tour when he was struck by his injury. The temptation of playing against the best resulted in him ignoring the injury and it turned out to be nearly fatal for his career. The IBSF World Snooker Team title has boosted his confidence and given Mehta hope that he can go on despite the pain and cope with the challenges that come with it.
"It (the title win) means a lot more considering the circumstances of the last one year or so. To stop playing for a while, not knowing what was going to happen with my career. When I came back early this year, I did not know what to expect from the game. But I always thought that I would manage somehow. Over the course of the year, the improvement has been quite steady. The title win has not come out of the blue for me. It's the first IBSF World title for me. I have won in World Games 2013 but as far as world championship goes, this is the first. It's very special," he said relievedly.
The one thing that kept Mehta going despite several doubts over his career was the love for the sport. The pain tested him but he kept his faith in the recovery program and in himself. However, there were days when he thought whether he would be back at his best.
"I never thought of quitting. I was afraid whether I would be able to play at that level or not. I knew that I was always going to try. This is my job, this is my life, this is the only thing I know how to do. I have Indian Oil backing me for the last decade and they never gave up on me. So, there was no question about me quitting the game. It was just about needing to realise and figure out that what level would I be able to play at," said Mehta.
When his recovery program started, it meant he could not play the sport for almost six months. He had to abandon the cue and leave the table. And that was one difficult challenge. Not a single shot in six months and waiting to get back to the table at home is an arduous task. It involves doing nothing and this is when doing nothing becomes an effort. The sudden stillness in life which is difficult to bear. However, the bigger challenge was to ensure how he could come back to the sport and for that to happen his physio needed to understand his sport, and Mehta his injury.
"For the first six months I did not play a single shot. I spent most of the time in the gym. Not having anything to do was also quite challenging. The difficult part was to sit at home and do nothing. It was not challenging in terms of how much effort I had to put in. I had to relax more and rest the neck more. Anuja, my physio, understood the problem and went deep into how we were going to deal with it because snooker is not something which we associate with the injuries. You don't really know what is required and what needs to be done. Over the period, the understanding grew. She understood the game and I understood the injury," he said.
The recovery went well and in early 2019, Mehta was back in the game with his first tournament being the Inter Unit PSPB Billiards & Snooker tournament. But in order to play, he required many other adjustments in his game. He was advised not to lower his chin too much. In snooker, the chin has to come close to the cue in order to maintain the vision and aim. To not do that and play is one big challenge. Mehta continues to keep the chin 3 to 4 inches over the cue. He played the world team event in the same manner. He is allowed to forget everything but this order.
"I am about 3 to 4 inches above my cue. My chin cannot get anywhere close to my cue. I experimented with going lower but that straightaway puts impact on the neck and I am not able to play for long duration," said the Arjuna awardee.
However, with more time and practice, he is comfortable in his new cue action.
He added, "I am quite happy with this cue action. Then there are small adjustments you have to make according to the cue action. Based on how high you are, the alignment, the vision, the sighting of the ball changes. When you are playing a ball that is nearby and when the ball is 12 foot away, the cue action changes everything. These are all challenges. It is still a work in progress."
When Mehta says 'work in progress', he means it. He has not fully recovered from the injury. He has merely signed a deal with it. It keeps troubling him but he is more mentally ready to deal with it. He faced another issue just a week prior to the World event and it meant that he would not take a single shot heading into the tournament.
"One week before the tournament I had another bit of an issue with my neck and my back. I did not play a single shot heading into the tournament for the whole week. My physio said that I should be alright on that day. By the time we played the team matches, I was in good condition. I had a good partner who took care of the situation when I was struggling and vice-versa."
Having a partner in Pankaj Advani was a huge help as well. Aditya said that it is always easy to team up with Pankaj, who like him, is a calm guy.
"We have played each other a lot this year. We had some really good games. He knows that I am more than capable. We have partenred in the World Cup in 2015 in China where we got a bronze medal. We make a good team. Both of us are very, very experienced and we seem to feed off each others' strengths. We don't get too concerned about issues which come about during a match. We are quite calm. It's not very often that you get to play in a team event with each other," said Mehta.
With slightly less pain and his mind in good space after the world team event win, the journey continues for Mehta. He has battled his way out of a career-threatening injury. He feels he still has some miles to go before the sun sets.
"It is just a matter of now figuring out what is my ability. With a completely new technique and new cue action, how much can I push myself? It's about how far can I go. At least I know now with my performances all around this year so far, I am there. I am pleased with my game. I just would like better consistency and less pain issues cropping up."
For the last five years, he saw pain as an enemy protesting against his career. His big achievement has been in becoming friends with the pain and coming to the realisation that to beat it, he needs to treat it as his companion and not as his adversary.
"It is not something that is going to go away. It is a lifetime thing now. I have to take care of it and prolong my career as long as possible," concluded Mehta.
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