Just how much we have all come to expect of 17-year-old Lakshya Sen can be gauged from the sub-headline that appeared below the banner heading "Lakshya, a step away from glory" in Saturday's sports pages of a prominent Mumbai daily newspaper ahead of his singles final at 2018 Youth Olympic Games. It boldly declared: "Will become first Indian shuttler to win Youth Oly gold". The definitive word was "will"; not "could".
In the event, the declaration turned out to be somewhat premature, as the Indian teenager had to settle for the silver, being beaten at 15-21, 19-21 by China's Li Shifeng. Lakshya thus became the second Indian to bag the Youth Olympic silver, repeating the 2010 feat of HS Prannoy.
Despite his lower world ranking of No 4, Lakshya was the favourite to clinch gold, as he beat every one of the top players in Asia on his way to winning the 2018 Asian Junior Championship. If he fell a trifle short in his quest of the gold, it was because he got scant recovery time for the title clash. Lakshya was forced to save a match-point in his protracted semi-final, even as Li cantered comfortably through his own penultimate round clash without being stretched.
To some extent, Lakshya had only himself to blame for the hair-raising manner in which he scraped through the semi-final against Japan's second-seeded Kodai Naraoka, coming back from a game down to claw into the final by a heart-stoppingly close 14-21, 21-15, 24-22 scoreline. The Indian allowed commanding leads of 11-0 and 18-8 to slip through his fingers in the decider and eventually came within a point of elimination at 20-21 in that 36-minute long final game.
"I got a little nervous during the match, but it felt good to ultimately pull out a close win like this," Lakshya told Firstpost. "I didn't start well but picked up momentum in the second game. I was in full command of the third game but began feeling the pressure after I made a few mistakes, and allowed him to come up to 17-18, and then at 19-all. But I managed to calm myself, and held on to win the match."
Lakshya's mentor Vimal Kumar, who is also the chief coach of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore, expressed concern that his ward had developed a tendency to relax and make mistakes when firmly in the driver's seat. He pointed out how the youngster had done exactly the same thing in the second game of the 2018 Thomas Cup tie against France's Toma Popov.
"Lakshya was coasting comfortably to a win, at 19-11 in the second game after winning the first, when he lost concentration and allowed Popov to pocket ten points in a row and bag the second game," Vimal said. "He was in control in the third game and should never have allowed that match to go to a third. His style is to attack and get to the net fast and he should have shortened the rallies.
"Similarly, Naraoka may have been too fast for Lakshya in the first game, but Lakshya controlled the pace of the second very well, to build up a strong 12-3 lead. He still allowed Naraoka to close the gap and won the second game only at 21-15. But after leading 11-0 in the decider, I simply can't understand how he let Naraoka back into the match. Lakshya will have to curb this tendency to let his opponent back into a match he has assumed full control over."
Vimal felt it was this laxness that cost Lakshya the gold medal. The extra points that he had had to play and the additional time he had had to spend on court against Naraoka told in the final against Li Shifeng, who had breezed through his own semi-final against Frenchman Arnaud-Sylvain Andre Merkle by a 21-7, 21-12 margin.
"It is far from easy to recover after tough back-to-back matches," said Vimal. "There is lactic acid accumulation in the player's muscles and this needs to be taken out, using ice packs and other physiotherapy techniques. Lakshya had team coach Sanjay Mishra in attendance but did not have a physio to help him recover from that tough semi-final, in time for the final.
"I could make out from his movements on the court that he was initially stiff and sore. This eased out as the final progressed and, had Lakshya managed to win the second game (which Li won at 21-19), he would have won the third, because I could see his sluggishness was gone. I rate Lakshya a better player than either Li or Naraoka, but he sorely missed the services of a physio."
It is a fact that the Chinese teams never venture out on to the international circuit without adequate backup staff in the form of coaches, physical trainers, masseurs, physiotherapists and team managers who take care of every little requirement of the players. Many of the other top badminton nations have copied this Chinese tradition in recent times but India continue to venture into world competition without proper support staff.
And that is how Lakshya Sen lost out in his quest for the Youth Olympics gold. Such opportunities don't come often and, in the case of the Olympics, they come only once every four years. Lakshya will get no further chances to win this particular gold, although he still has two years in which to win the world junior crown.
Postscript: It behoved to the Almora native's credit that he did not return from Argentina without the yellow metal. Lakshya also competed in the mixed team event and helped Team Alpha win the gold medal. Granted that the format of this competition is more gimmicky and fun-promoting than the serious fight for the individual event titles. Still, an Olympic gold is an Olympic gold!
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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2018 17:24:44 IST