Among the most eagerly awaited matches in the end stages of the just-concluded 82nd Senior Badminton National Championships in Nagpur was the men’s singles semi-final between the top seed and current World No 2, Kidambi Srikanth, and 16-year-old Lakshya Sen, the world’s second ranked junior.
The teenager, ranked 108th on the Badminton World Federation computer, had come through the qualifying draw to knock out the No 7 seed, Pratul Joshi at 21-18, 21-13; and had then accounted for the fourth-seeded Ajay Jayaram, after the latter was forced to retire injured while trailing 10-15 in the opening game of their quarter-final.
The 24-year-old Srikanth, on his part, had experienced some trouble in his own quarter-final against Shubham Prajapati, but had come through at 21-17, 23-21. The semi-final was touted to be a classic ‘veteran versus youth’ clash, pitting the top players of the two most well-known badminton nurseries of talent in the country — the Hyderabad-based Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) and the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA), based in Bengaluru.
In the event, the heavily favoured Srikanth won in a matter of 36 minutes, at 21-16, 21-18 after remaining on the attack throughout the encounter. He trailed until the three-quarter mark in the second game, in which Sen defended dourly and forced his redoubtable adversary into errors.
The youngster, born on 16 August, 2001, thus missed the chance of breaking the long-standing record of the legendary Prakash Padukone (born on 10 June, 1955), who had won the country’s senior national title when he was 16 years and seven months old.
At the 1971-72 Nationals at Madras (now Chennai), Padukone had won three titles — the men’s singles, junior boys’ singles and junior boys’ doubles, in partnership with his brother Pradeep. Sen would have been 16 years and two months old if he had bagged the men’s singles crown at Nagpur. He will be too old for the record when the Nationals are played next.
PPBA chief coach Vimal Kumar was critical of Sen’s performance in the closing stages of the semi-final clash. “Lakshya seemed to have a brain freeze when he was leading 14-12 in the second game,” a disappointed Vimal said. “He just played along the same pattern as he was employing right through the match, and allowed the experienced Srikanth to anticipate his next move.
“Actually, having the advantage of playing against the drift in the second game, Lakshya should have broken his pattern and pushed Srikanth back, employing the deep clear from the net, and using the high serve to the backcourt, rather than the short serve.
“Lakshya would have been secure in the knowledge that the drift would keep the shuttle in play and within the baseline. The boy has a strong defence, and could have blocked or parried any smash hit by Srikanth. But by staying with the short game, he played into his rival’s hands. Still, he is young, and will learn these tricks as he goes along.”
It was a second disappointment in three weeks for the hugely talented and hardworking Sen, following his elimination at the hands of Japan’s Kodai Naraoka at the quarter-final stage of the World Junior Championships in Indonesia mid-October. Although he was seeded four places above the sixth-ranked Naraoka, and despite holding the advantage of winning the first game comfortably, Sen lost at 21-14, 17-21, 14-21.
The competition for individual honours (held immediately after the conclusion of the Suhandinata Cup team championship) was won by Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn, the world’s top-ranked junior, who knocked out Malaysia’s Leong Jun Hao, ranked No 5, in the final. The Japanese conqueror of Sen met his Waterloo in the semi-final at the hands of the Malaysian.
“There are currently five juniors in the world who are almost equal to one another, and who can beat any of the others on their day,” said Vimal. “Apart from Lakshya, there is Vitidsarn of Thailand, Leong of Malaysia, Naraoka of Japan and China’s Gao Zhengze, who was beaten by the Thai player in the semi-finals in Indonesia.”
According to Vimal, any, or all, of these five outstanding juniors should be making their mark on the international scene at the senior level within a year or two. Sen, for example, is being groomed to be a top player at global level, with the PPBA chief coach carefully selecting the tournaments in which the teenager would be participating.
As for the domestic scene, it is pertinent to note that eight of the 16 players who made the main draw of the men’s singles event at the Nagpur Nationals are products of PPBA, who are either presently training there, or have graduated from the academy — Lakshya Sen, Pratul Joshi, Daniel Farid, Rahul Bharadwaj, Aryamann Tandon, Bodhit Joshi, Chirag Sen and Ansal Yadav.
In fact, virtually all the players who made the last-16 stage of the men’s singles (barring Ajay Jayaram, who is currently without a regular coach, after having trained for a while in Bengaluru with Tom John) are products of either Gopichand’s PGBA or Padukone’s PPBA. What a wonderful way for the two icons of Indian badminton to give something back to the game that gave them glory and fame!
Updated Date: Nov 10, 2017 16:18 PM