At the end of play on Saturday, it was clear that the men’s singles final would be the most anticipated match on the following day. Indeed, there was great excitement at the CCI courts in Mumbai, as what was about to unfold was the third installment of a rivalry that is expected to enthrall the badminton world in the coming years. Twice already had Lakshya Sen and Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn met – the Indian beating his opponent in the final of the Asia Junior Championship in July, and the Thai shuttler levelling the head-to-head stat by winning their semi-final at the Junior World Championships last month.
On Sunday, they were to play each other for the third time, but the first at a senior event. Sen had been at this stage of the competition before, losing in the final last year. But this time he had an opponent he was familiar with. And for the first time the pair have met in competition, the final scoreline was not that close.
In an encounter that lasted just 35 minutes, the 17-year-old Indian won 21-15, 21-10 to claim the Tata Open India International Challenger, the biggest title of his fledgling career.
“It feels so good now, especially after getting so close last year,” he says, meekly.
Soft-spoken off court, there’s no mistaking the intense drive he has on it. And with his first Challenger level title under the belt, the former junior world no. 1 is set to take the step up to the senior level.
“That will be the target next season onwards,” says U Vimal Kumar, who coaches the youngster at the Prakash Padukone Academy. “This title is a good confidence booster but there’s much more to achieve. I feel that Lakshya can now focus on the senior circuit. Also, to play both juniors and seniors is very tough.”
In the 2018 calendar year, the world no. 115 competed in four different junior international competitions and some senior events too. Along with the junior continental title, the most prominent of those four was his silver-medal winning effort at the Youth Olympics in October.
Along the way he encountered the legendary Lin Dan, twice – on each occasion he stretched the veteran two-time Olympic champion to three games.
“Those were experiences,” Sen asserts, “that really helped me figure out where I stand as a player. And what I need to change.”
One of those was boosting his mental strength.
“He’s become much more calmer and relaxed on court,” says Sagar Chopda, one of his coaches at the academy. “That’s helped him read the game much better and play to strategies much more efficiently. Take today’s game for example. Vitidsarn has a deadly down-the-line drop smash which catches people off guard. Lakshya knew it comes when the opponent is at his weakest, and so he was able to counter it.”
So strong was his preparation before the final that the summit clash actually turned out to be the shortest match he played the entire tournament – the semifinal, against Thailand’s Kantawat Leelavechabutr ,was the longest at 50 minutes.
“Lakshya didn’t give him the pace today,” Kumar adds. “Vitidsarn’s style is that he likes someone to really hit at him, then he will counter-punch. But Lakshya kept changing the pace and wouldn’t give him the rhythm. Right now, his temperament is better than many of the younger players.”
There’s a need still for Sen to work on strengthening his lower body and tighten up his defensive game. Those are aspects that his coaches are working on as he begins preparing for the 2019 season, his first where he will play only senior events.
And with the Tata Open under the belt, he has a title to springboard off.
“He still has a long way to go but he’s made a mark,” Kumar says. “He’s made a slight breakthrough. The others are all wary of him, they’ve noticed him and they know that they have to be careful. That fear factor is there, but now Lakshya has to build up that knack.”
Ashmita Chaliha wins second successive international title
It was a curious gesture from Ashmita Chaliha, as she led 8-4 in the second game of the women’s final. She chased down a deep lob from her opponent, Vrushali Gummadi, and almost like a tennis-tweener (she didn’t play this shot from between the legs but instead from her right), fired a hard shot straight back at the eighth seed. Gummadi was caught off-guard, shanking her return to the ground.
Chaliha raised her hand to her opponent, almost as if she was apologising for constantly tormenting her.
Which is exactly what she did in her 21-16, 21-13 win.
In a gripping exhibition of unexpected flicks, drops, half-smashes, and even that wicked thump off the baseline, Chaliha came up from the qualifiers to win her second successive international challenge in only her second senior international event.
Currently ranked 282, the 19-year-old left-hander has drawn comparisons with Carolina Marin.
“She’s very skillful and maybe a bit flashy,” explains Kumar. “But you shouldn’t curb that. Marin went on to become world champion. Maybe this girl will do something big too.”