More than half a century after Indians captured the junior and senior titles at the Asian Badminton Championships, an Indian stood astride the topmost rung of the podium at the Jaya Raya Sports Hall in central Jakarta, with a gold medal reposing against his chest.
Sixteen-year-old Lakshya Sen emulated the 53-year-old feat of Maharashtra's one-time badminton poster-boy, Gautam Thakkar, of winning the Asian junior title at Lucknow in 1965, a year that has gone down in the annals of Indian badminton as a golden occasion when returning machine Dinesh Khanna won the Asian senior title. PV Sindhu remains the only female Indian shuttler to bag the Asian junior crown when she achieved the feat in 2012.
Amazing as it would seem, at a time when every badminton-lover in India was jumping up and down in uncontrolled joy, after getting over the sorrow of the complete Indian shut-out at the Singapore Open Championships, Sen was most matter-of-fact and cool as a cucumber when he was bring congratulated at being only the second Indian male shuttler after the late Thakkar to annex the Asian junior crown.
"I had prepared well for this competition, the way I do for every international tournament and I felt I was playing better and better with each successive round leading up to the final," said the Almora, Uttarakhand native. Sen had rounded off a productive week by notching a richly deserved 21-19, 21-18 triumph over the top seed and the World No 1 junior, Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand.
It was by no means an easy match, though the Indian had romped into the final of the 128-player draw after sidelining the No 2 and No 4 seeds in successive rounds. Sen freely admitted to having felt the pressure of not only being the only Indian player in the finals of a tournament dominated by the Chinese but also being just the sixth seed in the event, facing the world's top junior and the odds-on favourite to win the title.
"Kunlavut is a complete player, very fast on his feet, and with all the strokes in the book," said Sen, showing commendable respect for his opponent. "He does not smash indiscriminately, but when he does smash, he has a very hard hit. I decided to mix things up and generally retained control of the rallies. On the day, I found my drops working really well, so I kept him constantly guessing whether I would hit a smash, a half-smash, a drop or a late flick toss."
Sen's tactics were similar to the strategy he had employed in the quarter-final against the tournament's second seed, China's Li Shifeng, whom he had steamrolled by a 21-14, 21-12 scoreline and in the penultimate round against fourth-seeded Indonesian, Ikhsan Leonardo Imanuel Rumbay, whom he had swept aside at 21-7, 21-14, in front of the latter's home crowd.
"What was most heartening for all of us who were supporting his bid for the title was the fact that he played a patient and mature game, and was not hassled at any stage of the match against an extremely fast and fit opponent," said team coach P Mohan Kumar, who runs a badminton academy at Tiruppur, near Coimbatore, and continues to be one of the top players in his age group in the Indian Veterans' Nationals.
"Lakshya did not look like he would be beaten in any of his last three matches against higher seeded players. In the final, even as the Thai player started the match at a furious pace in the first five points, Lakshya took his time to gauge the conditions and his opponent, and only then made up the leeway. He kept altering the pace of the rallies, and never allowed his rival to settle down or gain any sort of rhythm."
Did Lakshya take any lessons from his twin defeats in May this year at the hands of Chinese legend, Lin Dan? Sen lost in three games in the space of three weeks; in the Thomas Cup finals and the New Zealand Open – after winning the opening game on both occasions.
"Those two matches were far from my mind when I was playing the final today," Sen said. "That was a different opponent and this was a different opponent. I needed to play my game in the face of Kunlavut's strengths and weaknesses, which I had observed after seeing some of his earlier matches. But yes, I will say that the matches against Lin Dan did give me some lessons and, I think, made me a better player. For that matter, I think every defeat has made me a better player."
This willingness to learn from his mistakes, and the intensity with which he approaches his badminton, can be gauged from a comment made by advertising guru, author and screenwriter Manoj Ramachandran, father of Indian doubles star Shlok, who had observed Lakshya playing as a six-year-old in the 2007 Sub-Junior Nationals held in Dehradun, only a short distance from his hometown of Almora.
"I remember this pint-sized boy of six winning four qualifying round matches, and then losing his final qualifying round in three games, and crying inconsolably in a corner of the hall," says Ramachandran.
"It didn't matter to him that he had beaten four boys who were much older than him and also lost narrowly to a boy who was four years his senior. He still felt the hurt of losing. He was a real child prodigy."
Lakshya's outlook, and fierce desire to win, did not change one bit in the five years that followed. Chief coach of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) and two-time former national champion, Vimal Kumar, remembers Lakshya accompanying his elder brother Chirag and his father, noted badminton coach, DK Sen, to Bangalore, when the latter sought to place Chirag in PPBA. "He demanded that he also give an audition, to show how good he was," recalls Vimal. "I was really impressed by his intensity."
Rakesh Khanna, who, along with hockey great Viren Rasquinha, has been a director of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) – the organisation that has, for over a decade, been picking up the tab for training and tournament participation expenses of outstanding Indian sporting talent, with an eye on Olympic glory – says, "I clearly remember Lakshya Sen as a precocious 10-year-old lad, training at the Prakash Academy in Bangalore in 2011.
"We instantly took to him. OGQ has been supporting Lakshya since the time he was 10 and has currently provided him with a personal physio, trainer, nutritionist and sports psychologists. I remember PPBA and OGQ sent him to a Singapore tournament and he won the Under-11 event, beating the same Indonesian boy — Rumbay — whom he thrashed in the semi-finals of the Asian Juniors on Saturday, in front of that boy's home crowd."
The Asian Junior gold medal is, strangely enough, not Lakshya Sen's first piece of silverware from the event. Two years ago, as a 14-year-old playing at the CPB Badminton Training Centre in Bangkok, he had to settle for the bronze after losing a semi-final to China's then 18-year-old Sun Feixiang on Sunday, the tears he shed at that result of 2016 were aptly replaced by a dazzling smile and the coveted yellow metal.
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2018 22:41:51 IST