Flying under the radar and with a tailwind of carefree zero pressure, Lakshya Sen is rustling up quite a little storm. In a perfectly windless, harmless playing hall at Manila, Lakshya put Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie under the pump and got him to send his flick serve wildly wide. This was at 20-20 in the second set, having won the first, playing second singles of the Badminton Asia Team Championship semifinal against Indonesia against the World No 7. Having drawn out that error under pressure, the Indian 20-year-old proceeded to record a stunning 21-18, 22-20 win over the Indonesian, the biggest of his career.
“I was playing freely with no pressure. There was no drift, so it was easy to defend and I made no errors. I attacked and kept him away from the net. I had no tension when I got to know I’m playing him in the morning. I was just a junior, so he was under pressure,” says the youngster, who kept Christie at bay the whole of the opening set, and then parried back a second set defiance to pocket around 760 bonus points above his 3742 by scalping the Top 10 Indonesian.
Both Christie and Lakshya play a fast, attacking style, and the Indian was particularly sharp in defense, embracing the challenge of the longer rallies — something which he isn’t overtly fond of ordinarily. Lakshya picked a clutch of low-rung titles late last year while trudging through Europe (he was based out of Denmark), but the biggest takeaway from the European sojourn might well be the patience he’s developed in these longer rallies.
One, it made him independent in making decisions. But it also added the fall-back safety valve to his game which doesn’t fizzle out if he can’t go boom-bang in offense and is forced to dig his heels in and grit it out. Like at 19-16, Jojo Christie would bring out a pair of flick serves to level at 19-all. But Lakshya had been absorbing the pace so well, looking confident too, that the Indonesian would blink first at deuce.
Against Christie, Lakshya got going with some pretty down-the-line smashes and got himself good net openings too, to first wrest the lead. But it’s been more than just his attacking bearing as he’s now notched wins against Malaysian top singles player Lee Zii Jia and the top Thai Kantaphon Wangcharoen. The key, his coach, Vimal Kumar reckons, is him finally settling into the rhythm of the pace at this level.
“Pace is a lot of things – you need to have the finishing stroke of course, but you need to retrieve attacks. When you lift back – you should know to cross or block from both flanks. He played judiciously today,” Vimal says. Jojo brought out the deceptive drops in the latter stages which caught Lakshya off guard a tad. But not for long. A cross-smash after a series of straight ones would do the trick.
Lakshya struggled to close out earlier and would notoriously spray smashes out. On Saturday he went for the lines and it was a mark of just how freely he was playing that he erred very little. While Lakshya is not heading to Barcelona’s Super 300 where points are up for the taking with Chinese skipping the meet (heading to their 15-day quarantine straight for the All England) as he wasn’t entered into the tournament, he made the most of the chance to play second singles for India, with HS Prannoy and Srikanth setting off in pursuit of precious ranking points.
While Vimal says Lakshya ought to look forward to All England and grab every chance, the team is not piling pressure on him to seek Olympic qualification. He needs to be in Top 16 – he’s currently No 31. “Right now I’m not thinking of him qualifying realistically. But he should just play freely and that’s what we’re telling him – don’t look at the Olympics (lest the pressure drag him down like other singles seniors).
Targets are more of putting the systems in place: learning to think independently when travelling (“he should learn to organise sessions and not get bogged down that there’s no sparring or excuses of there being no coach.) He’s also got his hotel gym schedules for when he’s traveling and working on his strength is a continuous process.”
Playing in Indonesia and Malaysia earlier, there had been doubts if Lakshya could transition to the regular seniors circuit smoothly. “Srikanth not playing opened up a good opportunity for me. Coaches kept telling me to play calmly and not hurry. I’m happy my consistency has improved in last few months and I can keep calm in crucial times,” Lakshya says. Calm till he brews up yet another storm, that is.
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