Bulgaria Open: Lakshya Sen's spectacular title triumph proves he's ready to beat the older boys
Lakshya Sen has won the men’s singles title at the 2017 Eurasia Bulgarian Open Badminton Championships, and one struggles to absorb the full import of the latest achievement of the 16-year-old.
Lakshya Sen has won the men’s singles title at the 2017 Eurasia Bulgarian Open Badminton Championships, and one struggles to absorb the full import of the latest achievement of the 16-year-old. It is the Indian junior’s first win in the senior category at the international level, outside the country.
Indeed, right through the course of this year, the precocious Lakshya, the star product of the Bangalore-based Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA), has been competing against players much older than him in the junior ranks. Though eligible to play at the under-17 level, he willingly eschewed that right, and played only in the under-19s, to be ranked number one in the world among the players at that level.
With coach Vimal Kumar’s encouragement, the Uttarakhand lad participated in the Indian Senior Nationals in February this year, and notched up impressive victories over established players like HS Prannoy and Harsheel Dani, before suffering a meltdown in the final, and coming a cropper against Sourabh Verma.
Lakshya was just 15 at the time; and, had he won, he would have broken the long-standing age record of Padukone, who had won both the senior and junior national singles titles as a 16-year-old in Chennai in early-1972. Although that wasn’t to be, the Almora-born shuttler had announced his arrival on the Indian badminton scene in no uncertain manner.
The Bulgaria Open was Lakshya’s first foray outside India in an open tournament on the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) annual calendar. The greenhorn was called upon to pit his wits and talent against experienced players, including two 29-year-olds and one 30-year-old, who have all been on the international circuit for over a decade, though perhaps not as much in the public eye as the Chinese, Malaysian, Danish and Korean stars.
Launching his campaign in Sofia with a sensational and comprehensive 21-17, 21-9 opening round victory over top-seeded Englishman, 21-year-old Sam Parsons, ranked 90th in the BWF standings, Lakshya ran into compatriot and training partner, Kiran George, in the second round.
George had had to fight his way through the qualifying rounds, and had scored a morale-boosting win over Germany’s Max Weisskirchen in the first round of the tournament proper. But he had no answer to Lakshya’s guile, accuracy and consistency, and was beaten easily by a 12-21, 10-21 scoreline.
As seeded players in the top half of the men’s singles draw fell like ninepins to less fancied contenders, Lakshya encountered his first really testing and worthy opponent in Poland’s 30-year-old Michal Rogalski, whose 203rd ranking belied his skills with the racket. The super-fit Indian systematically wore down the Polish veteran, who had hit a career-high ranking of 70 in August 2015; and progressed to the semi-final with a 20-22, 21-18, 21-15 verdict.
Sri Lanka’s 29-year-old Dinuka Karunaratna, who had not been extended in his earlier three rounds, awaited Lakshya in the last-four reckoning, and ran the Indian close in the first game, but faded away in the second, to lose at 19-21, 14-21.
Meanwhile, seeded stars in the lower half of the draw had produced performances along expected lines, with the best four making their way relatively untroubled into the quarter-finals. In the semi-final, the number two seed, Zvonimir Durkinjak of Croatia, beat Bulgaria’s number six seed, Ivan Rusev, with a degree of comfort, by 21-19, 21-12, to seal a meeting with the Indian teenager in the summit clash.
Lakshya, who entered the tournament as a 15-year-old, and actually turned 16 on the day he clashed with Karunaratna in the penultimate round, was tested in the opening game by the speedy 29-year-old Croatian, ranked just outside the top 100 on the BWF standings, and ended second best at 18-21. But he turned the tables on Durkinjak in the second, to notch a runaway 21-12 triumph, and came through a searching examination in the decider, to pip the Croatian at 21-17.
“It took me a little while to adjust to the playing conditions and the drift in the hall, every time I stepped on to the court,” the youngster said, shyly, on a call from Sofia. “But I was confident of being able to play long matches, since I have been working on my fitness with Vimal sir.”
The coach himself, who was about to embark on a flight to Glasgow, where his ward Saina Nehwal will be taking part in the World Badminton Championships from 21 August, was pleased with the progress that Lakshya had made since he ended up second-best in the Senior Nationals in February this year.
“Lakshya is still raw and skinny, and not quite as strong as he needs to be; but he is growing, and his best quality is that he is temperamentally very strong,” said Vimal, a two-time national singles champion in 1988 and 1989, and who is now the chief coach at PPBA.
“He will get more power in his frame over the next couple of years, and be a genuine threat at all major world tournaments, not just this tier three competition that we sent him to, as an experiment. I feel this Bulgaria Open title could be the first of many titles to come.”
Vimal revealed that the academy had identified four players as outstanding prospects for the future – Lakshya, Rahul Bharadwaj, Kiran George (the current under-17 national champion) and Meiraba Luwang, a young lad from Manipur with quicksilver reflexes. All of them are in the growing stage, and Bharadwaj went through some injury issues with his knees, and missed a lot of the season last year.
All the four youngsters have benefited from exposure to players from other countries, with whom the PPBA has arranged exchange and training programmes. They had spent 10 days in Kuala Lumpur recently with Malaysian badminton great Misbun Sidek. Former All England champion Morten Frost of Denmark, who has been training the Malaysian juniors, is scheduled to visit Bangalore shortly with a team.
“We have been making them play in Malaysia and Indonesia,” said Vimal. “Peter Gade (another former All England champion), who is a close friend, has been very impressed with Lakshya’s progress. He is the national coach for France’s junior team, who are European champions, and better than the Danish juniors. We have forged an understanding with Gade to impart some training and coaching to our boys.”
The next ‘lakshya’ (which, in the vernacular, stands for aim or objective), for the lad just turned sweet sixteen, is the Vietnam Open Grand Prix tournament, followed by the Junior World Championships, to be held in Jakarta in October.
Lakshya will be one of the youngest competitors in the under-19 category of the latter competition, where he will possibly get a chance to extract revenge from Chinese Taipei’s top junior, who pipped him 25-23 in the deciding game of their desperately tight quarter-final encounter at the last Asian Junior Championships in Jakarta.
The soft-spoken Indian ace was not known for her aggression till five years back and it was chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, who had transformed her into an aggressive player ahead of the Rio Games.
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
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