Lakshya Sen had just one question for his coach after losing the first game against Kidambi Srikanth. “He asked ‘Am I holding back too much?'” says coach Sagar Chopda.
Sen’s game in the semifinal had become predictable. And against the World No. 2, his strategy or lack of it was being exposed. The smashes — otherwise Sen’s strength — were half-hearted and the drop shots were easily countered. His service was getting too predictable — straight down the middle, at the same height and with the same pace. Srikanth would step up and swat it without much fuss.
One of the criticisms about the 16-year-old’s game is that it is too predictable. He is also not know to handle pressure well, more so after he became junior World No.1 earlier this year and the world started to dissect his game.
He hasn’t lived up to his potential, crashing in the fourth round of the Junior Asian Championships — he won the bronze in the previous edition — and losing in the quarterfinals of the Junior Worlds last month.
“He’s a good player with a steady head, but when the pressure gets to him, he lets his opponents read his game,” says former World No. 10 Chetan Anand. What Anand means is that Sen sticks to a one-dimensional game plan when under pressure and needs to come up with a Plan B. “Sometimes he can become too predictable. He needs to be able to cope with that pressure.”
Against Srikanth, the clear favourite in this semifinal, there was no pressure on Sen. After the first game, he tried to attack more but was outclassed by the senior player and lost 21-16, 21-18.
“He was holding back, and he knew it,” says Chopda. “That was the only thing he did (attack) in the second game and made a decent match of it.”
His service itself changed, as he began varying the direction and pace. His dribbling at the net too showed more creativity, as he’d started pushing Srikanth sideways and backwards as well.
The smashes too carried more purpose, particularly the ones he’d play inside-out on the backhand side. Subtle wrist angles kept Srikanth guessing.
To level the scores at 12-12, Sen played and won the point of the match. Srikanth executed a drop-smash. But Sen dived to his right and successfully retrieved. Srikanth played the return deep, and Sen back-pedalled to play a blind backhand return that the 24-year-old hit into the net.
It was a display of the game he’s capable of playing. “He’s always there to keep a rally on, but there is no quick point,” Anand says. “Whenever he wants a point, he has to rally. So he needs those weapons whenever he needs to get the big points.”
Sen has age on his side for now and his coaches want him to play in a few senior international events to give him exposure before he makes the step up. But mental conditioning is an aspect Sen needs to work on, they admit.
“Once the rankings improve, people notice you more and the pressure increases. He has to learn to deal with it,” Anand says. He has paid the price for not being able to hold his nerve in crunch situations at the junior level, a drawback his coaches don’t want him to carry to the senior level.