Lakshya sets his aim higher and higher

- March 23, 2022
| By : Chander Shekhar Luthra |

The journey from the small town of Almora in Uttarakhand to the Utilita Arena in Birmingham, England, has made the 20-year-old Lakshya Sen a household name in the world of badminton.

File Photo/ Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

In recent months, Lakshya, whose name itself means “aim”, has been the talk of the town for taking down some of the best in the business.

Starting from Olympic champion and world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen, the boy from a cantonment town in Kumaon Hills has already accounted for world bronze medallist and No. 3 Ander Antonsen, Olympic bronze medallist and No. 5 Anthony Ginting, 2021 All-England champion and No. 7 Lee Zii Jia, and world champion and No. 9 Loh Kean Yew in different tournaments during his short span of international exposure.

In fact, the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) trainee knew before this big All-England final that his encounters with Denmark’s champion Axelsen had started to become a regular feature now. The week before the All England, Lakshya Sen beat Axelsen 21-13, 12-21, and 22-20 for the first time in their five meetings. And that was something that he wanted to remind himself of before this epic final.

Alas, it was not to be a repeat of his last victory. The scoreline of 10-21, 15-21 at Arena Birmingham may suggest a meek surrender, but for Lakshya it was a stepping stone to future success. It was a real test of his patience and resilience in those 53 minutes that he lasted on the court.

Lakshya carried out his plans and demonstrated to the world that he had truly arrived on this grand stage. In the big rallies, where he matched his champion opponent in almost all aspects, Lakshya was competitive. The final witnessed many 60-shot plus rallies and one even went up to 70. The Indian youngster forced Axelsen to play a little differently from his usual game. And that’s where he scored big over his rival.

Road to success

Lakshya started off by thumping over his compatriot Sourabh Verma before upsetting the 2019 World Championship silver medallist Anders Antonsen in style.

It was the quarter-final against China’s Lu Guang Zu, where his first big test was expected. But as luck would have it, the Indian received a walkover after his opponent complained of a back injury.

Then came that big moment against defending champion Lee Zii Jia during the last four meetings. But Lakshya was determined to play on his own terms. He frustrated the Malaysian with his strong defence to pocket the first game. Though Lee came back stronger in the second, Lakshya stuck to his game plan of keeping the shuttle in the middle till he found a winner.

There were long rallies and deceptive net dribbles, but Lakshya overcame a 16-18 deficit to win in an hour and 16 minutes. At the same time, Lakshya successfully displayed the art of controlled aggression, which used to be the main weapon of Prakash Padukone in the early 80s to win under pressure. The final was a different game altogether, with Axelsen controlling the pace of the game.

The new Indian sensation tried every trick in his armoury against the rampaging Axelsen, but it was just too little, too little for him. But that shouldn’t deter Lakshya from what he has done over the last few months while rising from junior world No. 1 to a place in the top 10 in the senior world rankings.

Sparring partners

Scrolling back a little bit, it was in January 2022 when Lakshya was excited to be invited by world No. 1 Axelsen for training together in Dubai.

Lakshya, ranked No. 17 in the world at the time, was aiming to crack into the top 10 rankings. And an invitation by the Danish star was nothing but a dream comes true for him. 

This was not the first time, as the Indian shuttler also had a two-week training stint with Axelsen in August 2021. Axelsen then invited Loh Kean Yew of Singapore, the current World Champion, Brian Yang of Canada, Toby Penty of Denmark, and Felix Burestedt of Sweden to train with him in Dubai.

The result was in front of everyone, as with less than two months gone by, the 20-year-old Indian had met the top-ranked Dane twice on the court in a quick span of two weeks. And not to forget that he even stopped the Dane from entering the finals of the 2022 German Open.

Lakshya has reached the finals of all three BWF tournaments he has competed in this year, winning the India Open Super 500 and finishing with coveted silver medals from the German Open and now the All-England.

His coach, and former India No. 1, Vimal Kumar, seems to be pleased with his recent successes. Though he is happy with his tactical acumen, he feels that “Lakshya can attack more from the back of the court and bring in more variations”.

Lakshya’s Korean coach, Yoo Yong-sung, pointed out that “there are no shortcuts to gaining big tournament experience”. And yes, he has also achieved his New Year wish of breaking into the world’s top 10. 

In the latest BWF rankings released on Tuesday, Lakshya improved two places to become world No. 9 with 74,786 points, surpassing reigning world champion Loh Kean Yew of Singapore. With the Chinese great and world No. 6 Chen Long missing from the tour, the Indian is seeded in the top eight.

This is another thing that his wish list also has a number of tournaments that he has aimed at. But that will take time to fulfil his dreams, and Lakshya Sen is certainly well on track.

The torchbearer

For a long time, Indian badminton was desperately looking for its next torchbearer in the men’s section with names like B. Srikanth, Parupalli Kashyap growing too drained out.

And Lakshya, with his exploits in the last four months, has taken up that place by winning a World Championships bronze, an India Open crown, a silver from German Open and now that all-important runner-up finish at the All-England Open.

Having identified as a prodigy by none other but the great Padukone himself, Lakshya’s journey this far has not been easy. It was in 2013 when his father Dhirendra Kumar Sen took him to the Academy to train under Vimal Kumar and Padukone. The result was there for everyone to see as Lakshya achieved the World No. 1 junior rankings by 2017.

There were more challenges as being faced by many other top world players during their careers. The transition from a top junior player to success in the senior circuit had many bottlenecks and Lakshya, too, was getting bogged down by it. 

It was then that a short stint at the academy run by Padukone’s best friend and former world No. 1 Danish legend, Morten Frost, helped him a lot.

Frost’s academy focused on his strength and stamina, and the next year, 2018, saw him win bronze at the World Junior Championships, gold at the Asian Juniors, and gold in mixed teams and silver in men’s singles at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. Apart from this, Lakshya also won a couple of Super 100 titles.

Lakshya should know that his best years are ahead of him and that this is just the beginning. Axelsen was 26 years old when he won his first All-England title two years ago. India’s first-ever champion, Padukone, was 25 and Pullela Gopichand was 27.

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