Lakshya Sen ambushed his opponent Lee Cheuk Yiu, chasing him all the way out of the Birmingham Arena of the All England. He did this during his first blitz at the Brummie, the 20-year-old’s biggest outing yet at a Super 1000, with a remarkable sense of urgency: he was in a hurry to start out and in tearing hurry to finish, though the 17-21, 21-8, 21-17 hustle took him 59 minutes.
Lakshya has a conscious habit of crowding an opponent with his attack. It took him some time – a 21-17 set actually – to take off, but his windmill whirring arms, his easy loping prances around the court and rushing defense all contributed to thoroughly assailing Lee.
For one, the Almora man training at the Padukone Academy in Bangalore, has one wicked catapult whippy serve which he uses to hasten the start of rally. Dragging Lee into a whirlwind denying him time to catch his breath yielded dividends when the Cantonese rapidly tired in the decider.
Lakshya spends very little time in between points in fact, and can prey on his opponent with a simple act of being perennially ready to serve whenever the rival looks up. Lee was given no time to ruminate as Lakshya struck momentum in the latter half of the second game, and then never took his foot off the pedal.
He’s no mug at body defense, but what really spooked Lee was him picking the shuttle early and sending it right back in quick time. Neither player liked long rallies, but it was Lakshya who got stuck into Lee, irritating him with the hand speed that punched holes in his vulnerable forehand swing.
And then there were the follow-up shots where he stalked and loomed over the net, leaving the already tentative HK Open champ, gasping for breath.
Lurking by the net held its dangers – Lee has an effective tumble shot where he can spin the shuttle tight. But Lakshya would quickly learn to push him back as he collected points in a cluster.
It was his bunch of 5 points in the opener in fact that rattled Lee, softening him up for the two sets to follow. The Indian had been reluctant initially to get dragged into the long attrition, but despite it not being ideal conditions for hitting through (shuttle stayed slow), Lakshya was timing the striking of the shuttle with delightful sync, even as his defence against big smashes stayed strong.
Putting Lee under pressure wasn’t tough after he had turned the rallies almost claustrophobic for him, but it was a mark of his maturity that he didn’t back off when the senior pro got a few crosscourt smashes past him.
“I was constantly talking to him to ease him into his All England debut,” said coach Vimal Kumar. “I kept giving him examples of good players playing their first few tournaments here. Rudy Hatton won here at 18, and while Taufik (Hidayat) could never win, he did make the finals at 18. I told him that he had beaten at least 6-7 from among the Top 30 players, do he definitely belonged in this league.”
What sets him apart from other youngsters, Vimal reckons, is his competitive nature — which as an early teenager would manifest in him bawling when he lost. “You need such a nature where defeats hurt, to get those big breakthroughs,” Vimal says.
His accelerations in returns and that pouncing at the net even in short, snappy points (he almost makes it look two frames faster when in full sway), end up seeing him run through points and a match faster than what his opponent would enjoy.
There’s a story from his childhood in Almora in Uttarakhand about how his father DK Sen drilled the competitive streak into him. He would casually mention that he’d reach the academy faster than both his sons (elder Chirag didn’t take up the bait), and then watch with amazement as a young Lakshya would race ahead – two strides at a time – only to prove to his father that he could reach faster than him.
“Me repeating that I was losing to a piddly boy would make him go even faster as he became very combative about winning those mere walks,” DK Sen recalls. This one other time, he got into a strange competition with fellow shuttler Bodhit Joshi also at Almora, where the two undertook a challenge to climb those 20 feet GI pipes that stood holding up cricket nets.
Lakshya had climbed up and down two and looked ready to move onto some other thing catching his fancy, when he saw Bodhit go up a third pipe. There was a cash prize on offer, and Lakshya would end up rappelling up and down 160 feet (8 pipes) just to beat the other boy in a completely nutty made-up game.
His crying after losses would scare his father in fact, because passersby would assume it was the strict parent who was putting pressure on him.
Well before he moved to Bangalore, Lakshya had demanded he get to wear branded Yonex shirts which didn’t come in sizes for a pre-teen. So his parents would sew in the iconic double YYs into normal T-shirts which would make him immensely happy.
It was a childhood spent otherwise with fewer demands from the two boys save the platefuls of momos and thupka at Dolma restaurant, on Kasardevi’s Binsar Road in Almora.
Two years back though, father DK Sen was amused when Lakshya, returning from a training stint in Europe, brought with him a remote control toy car. When his parents tried to tell him he was far too old for that toy and he might want to gift it to a younger daughter of his teacher mother’s principal, he would flatly refuse. It’s when Sen Sr realised that perhaps Lakshya had had a childhood weaned away from normal toys when he was welded to the badminton racquet early as a toddler.
His fierce, cut-throat nature is now channelled into his game and peaks out occasionally when he plays FIFA on PlayStation and talks about being competitive like Cristiano Ronaldo.
It was this same hyper eagerness that saw him hope desperately that the All England would go ahead as scheduled and not get cancelled owing to the Covid-19 spread. This love for a scrap also saw him wondering aloud to his father during the recent Asian Team Championship, his wish to take on Indonesia’s top-ranked player Anthony Hinting and not the next best – Jonatan Christie.
Eager to make a mark at the famous All England, Lakshya has started out well. Vimal doesn’t mind pegging his targets a notch bolder. “Next is (former world champ & Olympic medalist) Viktor Axelsen. I wouldn’t really say Viktor has an edge or something. I think Lakshya can fight equally with him. I’ll say 50-50,” Vimal declares. Like always, Lakshya is in a hurry to prove the point so the coach is rubbing his hands with gleeful anticipation.