Coach Vimal Kumar still remembers the first time he saw an eight year old gawky kid, flaunting skills with great intensity. His game was too mature for his age. And he certainly hasn't forgotten the time when a teary-eyed Lakshya Sen left a small note for him after losing a close encounter.
It was in 2010, when Lakshya, accompanied by his father DK Sen – who is now a coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore – was introduced to Kumar. His father sought a place for elder brother Chirag at the academy but junior Sen wanted to prove a point here. "When he (Lakshya) first came in, he was very small but he had shown some good skills. I still remember him leaving a small note after losing the men's doubles final, saying that 'I want to go as far as possible in at least one U-10 or U-12 tournament. I want to beat those guys the next time after training here'," Kumar recalled.
Soon after joining the academy, Lakshya, along with his partner Bodhit Joshi, had steamrolled opponents with ease but floundered in the final against brother Chirag and Rahul Yadav at the Sub-Junior National Badminton Championships in Hyderabad. The note, however, had served its purpose. "I then remember watching him subsequently win the U-13 national doubles title with Joshi in 2012. That's how his approach has been since joining the academy," he added.
Apart from that, Lakshya's mental toughness is also commendable given how an eight-year-old kid was prepared to leave Almora just to play badminton. But his father, of course, being a coach, has taught him the fundamental things, pointed out Kumar. "He was a good learner. If you tell him something, he'll implement it immediately. He challenged himself quite a few times too. Prakash also noticed all of his traits when we picked him. He would just sit around and observe everything," added the two-time national champion.
On Sunday (25 July), Sen defeated the reigning world junior champion and top seed Kanvulat Vitidsarn 21-18, 21-19 to become the first Indian man in 53 years to have won the Asian junior championships title. With that win, he etched his name in the elite company - other winners include Olympic champions Taufik Hidayat (1997), Lin Dan (2000) and Chen Long (2007).
But Lakshya, all of 16, still has a long way to go before we could sit down and say his name in the same breath as these legends despite establishing himself as one of the brightest kids on the block. The talent he brings to the table is no doubt prodigious. He became the youngest player to make the final of the Senior National Championships in 2016 and has been World No 1 in the juniors in the past.
However, the right-handed shuttler has succumbed to pressure in the final stages of a number of matches at international tournaments. Seeded second at the 2017 World Junior Championships, Sen folded up in the quarter-finals. He was the top seed at the Asian Junior Championships, where he lost in the fourth round. Moreover, the Uttarakhand shuttler has had a tough start to the year.
"This year, he has had a handful of issues. He couldn't perform the way he wanted to at the World Championships. He injured his shoulder in the process," said Kumar. Moreover, Lakshya has developed a good smash, so hitting with his right hand became a tough ask.
Despite his exceptional show to win gold, Kumar sees room for improvement. "He has to improve his strength and bring in more variations. So, we know what needs to be done once he's back. At the moment, he needs to use more of half-smashes and work on his reach. His defence has improved but he tends to dive a lot, which calls for the strengthening of his legs," Kumar explained.
Sen has never been short on confidence when it came to crucial matches but the lack of fitness didn't allow him to play at higher level. Even before entering the tournament in Jakarta, he had experienced severe pain near his shin area. "He was focusing on standing strokes. He played in pain. He hadn't played much before the tournament. He was apprehensive but he wanted to play and it turned out to be a good decision," Kumar explained.
Having stayed away from the on-court training while his rehab was on, Sen worked on his physical strengthening, with a focus on the lower body, and fitness.
Further, Kumar believes that as Sen is growing older, he's getting stronger physically and has grown a couple of inches over the last year. "Now the physical training has to be perfect so that it suits his body. We keep a track of his growth," said Kumar.
After returning from the injury lay-off, fit-again Sen faced his first and second challenge of the year in the shape of Chinese legend Lin Dan at the New Zealand Open and Thomas Cup in May. The new-look Sen gave the legendary Chinese a tough fight and even managed to take a lead on both the occasions. Lin, eventually switched gears to bag the next two games but Sen had left a mark.
En route to the gold medal in Jakarta, Lakshya out-muscled the World No 2 China's Li Shifeng and World No 4 Ikhsan Leonardo Imanuel Rumbay – in successive rounds before dismantling the defending champion in straight games.
He was able to gauge the court conditions and his opponent in the final. Despite the drift inside the arena, Lakshya played with and against the wind. He mixed up his hard smashes and good drops. "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 native.
— Lakshya Sen (@lakshya_sen) July 22, 2018
Now, Kumar hopes that the Sen Family settles down quickly in Bengaluru, which will allow both Lakshya and Chirag to get into the comfort zone. "With the luxury of staying with parents and eating home-cooked food, it is surely going to make a lot of difference," he concluded.
Just like how that small note did.
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2018 20:00 PM