New Zealand Open: Lakshya Sen reiterates credentials as future of Indian badminton by stretching Lin Dan

Sen seemed wise to the left-hander’s patented style of playing at a languid pace and waiting for his rival to make a mistake, and interspersing this pattern with a couple of points played at a blinding pace.

Shirish Nadkarni May 03, 2018 22:19:13 IST
New Zealand Open: Lakshya Sen reiterates credentials as future of Indian badminton by stretching Lin Dan

Lakshya Sen. Remember the name, carve it on your memory wall in the unlikely event that you have not heard it. The lad from Almora, Uttarakhand, was the runner-up in the 2016-17 Nationals, narrowly missing the chance to break the record of the iconic Prakash Padukone – of winning the men’s singles national title while still a junior. Sen is the future of Indian badminton.

All of 16 years of age, Sen gave the international badminton world a glimpse of his prodigious talent by stretching China’s top-seeded Lin Dan over the full distance, before capitulating in the second round of the New Zealand Open Badminton Championships in Auckland. It took the Chinese great an hour and seven minutes before he could subdue the feisty Indian by a 15-21, 21-15, 21-12 scoreline.

New Zealand Open Lakshya Sen reiterates credentials as future of Indian badminton by stretching Lin Dan

Lakshya Sen fought toe-to-toe with the great Lin Dan. Twitter/@BAI_Media

A product of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy(PPBA) in Bangalore, Sen, who is currently ranked 104th in the world, had demonstrated the extent of his abilities to Mumbai’s badminton fans a few months back, when he stormed into the men’s singles final of the Tata Open India International, before going down narrowly by 19-21 in the third and deciding game to Thailand’s speedy, hard-hitting Sitthikom Thammasin.

On Thursday, at the North Shore Events Centre, Sen swiftly dispelled any notion that might have crept into Lin’s mind that this was going to be a cakewalk. The Indian matched the Chinese legend in all departments of the game, staying in the rallies with as much aplomb as he countered his adversary’s renowned netplay. There was hardly any indiscriminate employment of the full-blooded smash by both rivals.

The first game was a seesaw battle of wits, with World No 10 Lin being unable to decide what to make of the young upstart, ranked a good 94 places below him on the Badminton Word Federation (BWF) computer.

Sen seemed wise to the left-hander’s patented style of playing at a languid pace and waiting for his rival to make a mistake, and interspersing this pattern with a couple of points played at a blinding pace, to avoid allowing the opponent to get into any sort of rhythm.

Amazingly, these bouts of scorching pace suited the Indian better than the toss-and-drop game, and he was easily able to match the veteran in this game of shuttle-chess, taking five straight points from 0-2 to lead 5-2, and then 7-5, before Lin turned the tables, and went into the mid-game break with a narrow 11-9 advantage.

The lead continued to change hands until 13-all, when Sen pulled two points clear, and maintained a marginal advantage until 16-15, when 'Super Dan' (as he is widely known) literally gifted him the game with a series of smash and sliced drop errors along the sidelines, while trying to finish rallies by the short route. The Indian grabbed the final five points of the game to assume the driver’s seat in the encounter.

But the 34-year-old Chinese ace did not win two Olympic gold medals and five World Championship titles for nothing. He went for the potentially risky tactic of prolonging the rallies, dragging his reedy opponent all over the court, and inviting him to pull the trigger first. Risky, because Lin is more than twice the age of the Indian, and could hardly have hoped to outlast Sen in the stamina stakes.

Once the Chinese shuttler had enlarged his initial 4-2 lead to 9-3, and then to 14-7, there was nothing much that the youthful Indian could do to salvage the second game. It was experience that triumphed over youth, as Sen was the first to lose patience and sought to end the rallies with smashes that smacked into the tramlines.

There was more of the same in the decider. The wily Lin had figured out that Sen was more at ease against pace than in playing the rally game, and he chose to remain patient, only choosing to bring the shuttle down with an overhead half-smash to Sen’s backhand sideline. That one stroke fetched him points galore, as he led 9-4 and 12-6 before Sen staged a minor comeback to 10-12. That was as far as he went, and the top seed proceeded to the finish line at a graceful gallop.

“Hi Lakshya, bad luck; watched your match against Lin Dan,” is the message that PPBA chief coach Vimal Kumar sent to his ward after the match. “It was good, and you could have beaten him if you had shown a little more patience. You cannot score against Lin if you smash within a few shots. You have to rally, and then attack. So, you need to be patient, and the shuttles were also slow.

“Believe me, Lin was also tired, but the points you gave at crucial stages were simple, and you didn’t make him work. Anyway, it would have been a good experience, and you now need to improve your muscle endurance. Everything else looked good. Also, improve your body language a little more. Have a good stretching session tomorrow, and be focused on Australia (the next World Tour tournament).

“Do your best; there is nothing to worry. You are there with the best now, and you can convert these matches in your favour soon. Best wishes.”

The valuable lesson in patience, that Sen learned on Thursday, would not have been lost on Lin’s next opponent, 23-year-old Sameer Verma, the fifth seed, who made the quarter-final of the $150,000 event with a close 21-17, 21-19 triumph in 44 minutes over Hong Kong’s 21-year-old Lee Cheuk Yiu, ranked 38th in the world.

Verma, who sits on the 26th rung of the BWF ladder, had notched up an impressive 21-8, 21-10 victory the previous day against former World Championship runner-up, Sony Dwi Kuncoro of Indonesia, who coincidentally had been Lin’s victim in the final of the 2007 World Championship in Kuala Lumpur. However, Verma will be clashing with the Chinese great for the first time.

Among other Indians in the fray, third-seeded Sai Praneeth, ranked 18th on the BWF computer, experienced plenty of trouble against Malaysia’s Daren Liew, but held on to come through for his first victory in three meetings with the Malaysian, ranked 42nd in the world. It must, however, be remembered that both of Praneeth’s losses to Liew had come more than four years back, and are somewhat irrelevant in today’s changed circumstances when the Indian is a vastly improved player, and will be the defending champion at this year’s Singapore Open.

The Indian should not find it overly difficult on the morrow to subdue Sri Lanka’s 129th-ranked Niluka Karunaratne, who was promoted from the qualifying ranks, and had the distinction of scoring two wins in the main draw. The two have met on four previous occasions, and Praneeth had come out on top every time, even though their most recent two matches have gone the full distance.

Meanwhile, disappointment awaited Ajay Jayaram, the fourth Indian in the men’s singles draw, when he collapsed like a pack of cards in the third game after losing the second over the extra points to South Korean qualifier Kwang Hee Heo. Thirty-year-old Jayaram, who has dropped to 106th in the rankings, appeared to have victory in sight when he led 16-11 in the second game after pocketing the first. But he failed to hold off the 22-year-old Korean’s late charge, and succumbed by a scoreline of 21-15, 20-22, 6-21.

While India had no representatives in the main draw of the women’s singles, fifth-seeded Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy were not unduly stretched while accounting for Thailand’s Pakin Kuna-Anuvit and Natthapat Trinkajee by 21-9, 21-12, in a second round men’s doubles duel.

However, a stronger Thai pair awaits the Indians in Friday’s quarter-final – the fourth-seeded duo of Bodin Issara and Nipitphon Phuangphuapet. Left-handed Issara, it will be remembered, was one-half of the pairing with Maneepong Jongjit that sensationally came to blows on the court during the course of a match in July 2013, in one of the most unsavoury episodes in the sport’s history.

Issara was banned for two years for punching Jongjit, but served his sentence, and has behaved himself since, even playing in the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in India. He is the stronger and more accomplished player in the combination with Phuangphuapet, and will have to be watched closely by the Indians if he is not to run away with their last-eight battle.

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