The country's obsession with a particular sport has grown at the expense of other vocations of physical excellence (not that bodily conditioning is what comes to mind when one considers the smoky dens that foster cue sports in the city) and the grouse between the haves and the have-nots has only worsened. Neena Praveen, fresh off defending her National Pool Championship (8-ball) title in Ludhiana, sums up her predicament succinctly: “I am a National champion, but nobody would ever recognise me on the road.”
The lack of recognition might be painful, but it's still not as debilitating to the cause of a sportsperson as the lack of sponsors. Neena, 29, is currently busy sourcing funds for a trip to the Beijing Open, a strictly invitational pool tourney into which she has been fortuitous enough to gain entry. The story, she says, is nothing new.
Struggle for funds
“There are no sponsors for cue sports. If it's cricket and IPL, everybody is more than happy to help, but we struggle to get funds for international tournaments. It's necessary for us to participate in at least four or five international events every year, learn from the overseas experience…but that's almost impossible to do because no sponsors are forthcoming,” she says.
Currently India's premier female pool player (8-ball), Neena is ranked second in billiards in the State, behind the top-ranked Bangalore-based Vidya Pillai, who also competes for Tamil Nadu.
Neena took to the game relatively late, as an 18-year-old, and it wasn't until a few years ago that her loyalties swayed from snooker to pool. The results were immediate: National Women's 8-ball titles (2010, 2011) and a second place in the 9-ball category.
“I found pool more challenging to play. Once I started practising, I knew I could play this format well,” she says.
Neena claims to practise eight hours each day, saying that “there is always so much to learn however successful you might be” and her focus is now firmly on pool.
“There are a lot of international pool tournaments coming up. The prize money is good, even if one clears the first few rounds, the returns are enormous. But getting there and participating requires sponsorship...in Chennai, especially, there are no corporate houses coming forward to help out. There are so many instances of players qualifying for an international event, and then being unable to make it for lack of funding,” she adds.
Neena's international experience includes representing India in the Guangzhou Asian Games and in the IBSF World Championship in Hyderabad in 2009.
“I did not do too well at the Asian Games, because that was my first international assignment. It really helps to travel more and be prepared for all kinds of players, playing styles and environment.
With more exposure, I hope to do better.”