The arguing continued until the tournament referee was called on court. Yee Han Chong smashed down the line, prompting Lakshya Sen to dive for the return. The shot however, was sailing outside the sideline but Sen was slow to pull away his racquet and got a faint touch. Only, the chair umpire didn’t see the deflection and awarded the point to the Indian.
Chong protested and the point was overturned, then Sen protested against the late decision till the tournament referee declared in favour of the Malaysian. At that stage, Sen was leading 19-17 in the third game and had been given a match-point opportunity that was retracted moments later.
Chong, the world no. 139 was riled up, but his 16-year-old opponent remained composed. And Sen was alert enough to recognise an opportunity when the Malaysian bungled his serve. Sen simply stepped up and played a drop-shot that kissed the top of the net and left no room for Chong to recover. Sen finally had his first match point in the opening round of the Tata Open International Series at the CCI Courts in Mumbai.
“You need to be very gutsy to play something like that at such a moment, and after what had happened a minute earlier,” says Sagar Chopda, a coach at the Prakash Padukone Academy where Sen trains. “Normally people play it safe and then look for an opening. But Lakshya has developed good control over his emotions in the crucial moments.” In a contest that lasted 63 minutes, the world no 108 and junior world no 3 wasted no time in converting his first match point. That too, with glimpse of the variations he’s steadily started adding to his game. “He changed the angle of his serve at match point, which is something very few players have the ability to think of at such a stage in a match,” adds Chopda.
The serve set up the point for Sen, as he’d go on to win 21-23, 21-10, 21-18. This was the second time in a week that Sen played, and defeated Chong. The last match was last weekend, when Sen played another three-game match to defend his title in the final of the India International Series in Hyderabad. The wins were stepping stones into the senior circuit for the Uttarakhand teenager, who had conquered the junior world no 1 rank back in February.
The pressures of reaching the summit, however, did take a toll on him, as his performances dipped. “You don’t want any mental tension, but still want to be no 1. That’s never going to happen,” says Padukone. “You have to learn to deal with it. But he’s still young, and it will happen for him.”
There was a period however when the pressure had started affecting him. The teenager was particularly dejected after losing in the semi-final of an All-India event in Bangalore. “He knew everyone was expected him to win, so even Prakash sir sat him down and talked to him about it,” Chopda had told the Indian Express during the senior nationals earlier this month.
A week after the defeat though, Sen would win the Bulgaria Open. And just last week, he defended his crown in Hyderabad. “Among all the junior players, Lakshya has been the most consistent,” says Padukone. “The rest will play one good match and disappear for the next four-five events.”
In fact, Sen has failed to reach the quarterfinals just twice in the 11 tournaments he’s played so far this year – including the Junior World Championships.
Over time, the youngster has become more patient in his play, especially on slower courts like in Mumbai. “When he has a chance to hit, he has a really hard smash. But the shuttles in many Asian countries move slowly. You have to be patient, but Lakshya has adapted well,” Chopda says.
At the same time, he continues working on his upper-body strength to bolster his already potent smash. Earlier in November, at the senior nationals, Sen’s smashes even caused Kidambi Srikanth anxious moments, particularly from the overhead drives from the backhand side. “He’s improved a lot on his strength and he’s getting the punch on his cross-court smashes,” Chopda adds.
On Thursday, he closed out his match against Chong with his favourite shot. After the deceptive serve, he forced his opponent to play a harmless loft. Then came the smash.