January 22, 2022 11:36:51 am
Lakshya Sen has heard it often enough – about his striking resemblance to Bollywood biggie, Ranbir Kapoor. India’s latest badminton star, even has chuckling instances to narrate about feeling wide-eyed and ears pricked, jutting out more than usual, like Kapoor’s dewy-eyed turn in the post-credit scene of the 2014 hit PK, when he trundled down to the plains from Almora in Uttarakhand, at 1,642m above sea level.
Like this one time in Dehradun (430m), which was Lakshya’s earliest venturing into the ‘big city’. “It’s where we ‘travelled’ for camps and big state tournaments.
At a 2008 All-India meet, all of us players were told to be line judges. I only remember taking autographs of big players – Arvind bhaiyya (Bhat) and Saina didi (Nehwal),” he recalls.
After a World Championship bronze on debut at Spain in December and a title at the India Open Super 500 in Delhi last Sunday – also in his first appearance – Lakshya says he blushes and tries to scribble his signature to whoever approaches him.
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Scouted out by Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar early because he possessed the discretion to keep the shuttle in court and not hit out wildly as pre-teens do, Lakshya hiked down to settle in Bangalore (920m), and was even more innoxious gaping around at the big training halls of the Padukone Academy. For someone not quite even 5 feet then, Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhat – the dominant players of those years – were particularly gigantic with their whiplash 6-plus footer games. “I was star-struck and we would sit around the court and watch their matches,” he remembers of being slack-jawed to go with the gawping eyes.
While he settled into the new big city’s reassuring consistency (“same weather throughout the year,” he says), the tranquility of the hills is still the unhurried serenity he thinks of when imagining Almora.
“It’s home. Very peaceful. It’s a very small town; everyone sleeps at 8.30 – 9 in the evening,” he says. There’s a rare Jordanesque jostle within him when the fan of Ranbir’s esoteric hit, Rockstar – “I really like his movies,” Lakshya says – thinks back to two winters ago when he won the Scottish Open beating Ygor Coelho of Brazil at Glasgow in three tight sets in a grim November of 2019.
“What I remember of that title is how much snow there was outside the stadium. You could only see snow,” he starts, before being piqued about a childhood memory that’s vamoozed before his eyes: “It used to snow every year in Almora. Now it’s just gone,” he vexes. Lakshya Sen doesn’t know where the familiar white sleet from the mountains outside his window went away, while he was ensconced downhill in politely pleasant Bangalore, chasing elite excellence.
Lakshya followed his elder brother, Chirag into the game. Like he followed him one summer into a ‘dance class.’
“My dad in the beginning put both of us into a dance academy for a month,” he recalls. Like shuttle, DK Sen encouraged his two boys to loosen their limbs in dance – both folksy from the hills and the more drill-like Bollywood. Precision in movements mattered to the coach.
“I can go back to my dad anytime, we have that equation. But still there’s much more openness with my mother (Nirmala, a former school teacher). I tell her anything freely. I’m a little scared of my father, and there’s always a filter,” Lakshya explains. Sibling wrestles with Chirag and fights over remote and PlayStation are long gone, and now he appreciates just how well the brother cooks and has fed him when travelling out for tournaments, while offering familial support. “He’s my good friend,” he says.
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While he comes home from titles and first-round losses to the never-changing crispy bhindi ki subji and home-cooked chicken of his mother, his heart often pines after another staple of the hills: the mutton momos of Uttarakhand.
“So, you have to go 6-7 kms further uphill from Almora to Doli Dana where there’s lots of restaurants. Momos at Dolma are my favorite,” he says.
The familiar wafts, the glistening indoor wooden courts where badminton fills long hours and the calmer life – Lakshya says his home state has untapped potential.
“There’s a lot of talent, and people enjoy sport,” he stresses. He often shot hoops off a basketball pole at his home, and he insists he’s a very good football player, even before pledging his heart to Manchester City and Kevin de Bruyne. “I played a lot of football in the lockdown too, but you have to be careful about injury. If I was born in Europe and training at a top facility, I’d have been good possibly,” he says, not entirely joking in his assertion.
The quiet Lakshya Sen ambition – unfurling over the last three months – is more robust than his boyish face lets on. “Oh, I used to cry a lot after losing when I was small. I just hate losing,” he says. The World Championship semifinal ended in a warm embrace as Kidambi Srikanth found the best man to celebrate his march into finals was the one across the court, with the grinning duo offering a memorable frame for photographers. But Lakshya says he’s still hurting from that loss.
“Lots of times I’ve played badly and been beaten in life. But this was easily my worst loss. I gave it my everything and still lost,” says the bronze winner, who craved the gold or silver, and wasn’t happy to settle – never mind the debut and a country back home that was going to be happy no matter which of the two Indians won. It’s a defeat Lakshya wants to nurse, and will threadbare often in what is a good sign for Indian badminton.
Once you leave the comfort of the hills, you can cross many seas and scale innumerable peaks – some like sea-level cauldrons of shuttle’s most crowded arenas of Indonesia. Fans literally and noisily breathe down your neck from the steep stands – and thinking straight becomes impossible. It’s not noise you can block out, even when it’s not hostile to you.
“I love playing at Jakarta. The first time I played there I froze and lost 21-10, 21-11 or something. It was 9 a.m. in the qualifiers and it was jam-packed in the stands behind the court. I thought the shouting would stop, but it never did. You can’t even hear the umpire who is shouting,” he recalls. It’s when Danish legend, Morten Frost, told Lakshya “it was OK to freeze”, the Indonesian screeches having outlived Frost’s career from back in the 80s.
Frost had dished out more proactive advice earlier. “He’s a legend, tactically smart, and reads players well. The biggest change he brought about in me is to convince me to keep one more shuttle inside the court to keep pressure on the opponent. And varying the pace,” Lakshya says.
Opponents – Indian and not – over the last few months have come to watch with wilting wills that the pricked attentive ears, never ease down; Lakshya has built up his fitness and parried injuries to play a strangling game that can wait out rival resolves to the extreme. He’ll dive if needed, anticipate compulsively, sacrifice sitters that could be retrieved in the off chance and ration the energy he devotes to set-up shots and eventual kills. It’s what Frost drilled into him when Lakshya worked with him – sometimes in a patient hymn, other times with an urgent hiss.
It’s what almost got Srikanth at Huelva, and chipped at the World Champion, Loh Kean Yew, in Delhi. But Lakshya’s shuttle pilgrimage has taken him far and wide. “Eyes wide open, wherever I trained: Denmark, Indonesia and Thailand for a month.”
It’s where he got to know the courteous Kunlavut Vitidsarn, a contemporary and someone who’ll be his rival for years. Like reading slow shuttles, Lakshya takes his time, absorbs pressure and amiably goes about dismantling opponents.
Srikanth? “He’s tactically smart.” Prannoy? “I’ve spent more time with him than any other Indian. We play FIFA mostly. Prannoy mostly wins.” On the court, Lakshya 2-1.
Chinese Li Shifeng who beat him to the Youth Olympics big medal but trails 1-3, doesn’t speak much. The Chinese are transitioning, and Lakshya will be settled on the circuit by the time the new crop starts thrashing away at everything in sight. Viktor Axelsen is “a great example” for him to follow, while Momota, he has accepted, “is a wall to play against.”
World champ Kean Yew is “a fun guy to hang out with,” while Brian Yang, another youngster who he bunked with at Viktor Axelsen’s Dubai base, and Lakshya go back a long way. They were on the same mixed team that won gold at Youth Olympics. From Saina Nehwal, whom he trained alongside, Lakshya learnt all about staying monkishly focussed. And from PV Sindhu, “she’s a smart player and a big match player.”
His favourite shuttler? Taufik Hidayat.
Lakshya has soaked in the ‘Games Village’ experience at Buenos Aires Youth Olympics in 2018, remembers halls like Saar Lot Loux as good to hit, while Bangkok will remain a “reality check” after he copped a sobering loss at an Asian semifinal.
Well-travelled and commensurately funded and coached in his carefully curated career, Lakshya says he owes gratitude to his outgoing coach, Vimal Kumar, who at 60 now, is stepping back a tad from completely micro-managing the career which is only just lifting off. “Vimal Sir’s a father figure. A well-wisher and the best coach I had,” Lakshya says.
Korean Yong Soong Yoo who has taken over at the PPBA, has immediately left a mark: “He’s disciplined, tactically sound and in only 2 weeks of working with him, I feel it’s going to work out well,” he says.
“Oh, that shopping needs to be planned. You make a plan, you draw a list. Otherwise earlier we used to roam around aimlessly. Now there’s no time,” Lakshya laughs. Travelling too is central to success on the circuit. “Yes I never get bored of new places. I like travelling.”
Lakshya’s playlist is getting organised too. “I have a folder of ‘getting into the zone before a match songs’ which keep me focussed,” he says.
Right now it’s the Punjabi hip-hop Brown Munde of AP Dhillon. Other party numbers keep him on his toes, while he took in webseries like Mirzapur and Family Man on the flanks of his breakthrough season.
Lakshya remains alert to any coiling of the back – the most painful injury, according to him. “Shoulder, shins are worser injuries – but you can train the legs or hands while recovering. But back is the worst. You can’t do anything,” he says.
Lakshya’s first brush with the bigtime happened at the start of this endless pandemic, at the All England – a tournament he craves to win. “It’s a dream tournament, and I luckily qualified in 2020. I was 32 in ranking, but Son Wan Ho had a protected ranking so he got in and I was Reserve 1. Then Kento Momota pulled out and I got in,” he recalls.
He’d impress Axelsen enough, nicking winners off him in the opener. Two years on, Lakshya talks about realistically upsetting applecarts at the All E. “And winning the Olympic medal.” There’s even a delectable actor around, who looks like him, should he make history.
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