Story of near misses: Lakshya Sen’s senior career thus far is a tale of squandered opportunities against big names

Lakshya Sen would be better off taking one wistful look at the glass half full, gulp down its bitter contents and stare into the depths of the tumbler – for its complete, crystal-clear emptiness. An 18-14 lead against Japanese star Kento Momota, followed by six straight points frittered away to go down 18-20 before losing the game 21-23, amounts to nought in the larger scheme of things.

Conquests define badminton careers. Kidambi Srikanth earned his stripes, surprising Lin Dan with startling cross-court smashes, brought out at the right time to set up his net kills when winning the China Open in 2014. Sen’s contemporary Kunlavut Vitidsarn dumped out favourite Lee Zii Jia rallying from a game down. So, Sen would be the first to know that a four-point lead in the first game against Momota, whose back gave way the next day, does nothing to burnish his credentials. Yet, a stalking halo of hope and hype of precocity follows Sen’s progress as he debuts at the World Championships in Huelva this coming week.

Next in line he may be, but it’ll be an utter disservice to the young man if he gets tagged ‘big thing’ without getting the big wins. Not merely first-game leads, the sizzling starts, the YouTube-on-loop reflexive defences and piecemeal punch- clears that prolong a rally. But the W in the results column.

Sen sampled the life of the valiantly vanquished this last month, and breaks it down to its unglamorous parts: “Of course, I have to be patient and alert from the first point. But there’s no easy points later either. After every few points these big players read you better, change things around…” And just like that, the match is gone. Momota straps his mask on the ever-inscrutable face, picks his kitbag and walks on. Someone like Viktor Axelsen, with whom Sen trained for a fortnight in Dubai on invitation, leaves the niceties for the grinning post-game handshake and shows no hospitality while thrashing him on court.

Add to that the law of the diminishing reruns: “I need to work to increase my stamina and pace. Have to keep energy up. It was still better the first few tournaments, but then the strength comes down with every tournament,” the youngster says. It’s been an extraordinary post-pandemic season with eight tournaments bunched in 10 weeks, the Worlds being the ninth in 12 weeks.

Should Sen, ranked 19, get past German Max Weisskirchen, a tricky first opponent, he has Japanese Kenta Nishimoto (No. 17) whom he’s never played, next. An attacking busybody, his game is laced with doubles instincts – those quick drives. But Nishimoto offers the Indian an opportunity to maximise the advantages of withdrawals in his half of the draw.

National coach P Gopichand reckons the way Sen is playing, someone like Kevin Cordon, surprise semifinalist from Guatemala at the Tokyo Games, will be “beatable.”

“His explosive jump and power are world-class,” he reckons, adding that slow courts will pose a challenge to him, like most other Indian men’s singles players. Heading into 2022 with the Commonwealth Games and Asiad, Gopichand does see Sen becoming a lynchpin of Indian teams soon.

Gaps to plug

Sen’s coach at Bengaluru’s Dravid Padukone Badminton Academy, Vimal Kumar says the last few months have been about small pickings – beating a hitherto unbeatable Sourabh Verma – who’s a slow-court asphyxiator – getting the better of Kunlavut in Germany showing patience, and digging heels in against Kanta Tsuneyama in a rally-resplendent defensive retrieval-fest at Bali with saturated slow shuttles.

“Against Momota, he had chances which he didn’t grab at 18-14 due to poor shot selection. He didn’t push the pace when he should have, and stayed back. Against Axelsen, you learn that you can’t go all-out,” Vimal explains. These are problems on the wide spectrum arc – too rushed, too laidback. That Sen gifts 5-6 points on a trot sets him up on a platter for the big names, with a drizzle of indecision adding the crunch.

Sen can play fearlessly, but is yet to explore deceptive clears from the back when under pressure, and his approach at the net will rarely get leeway, with the likes of Axelsen pushing him back like in the World Tour Finals semifinal. Sen found no semblance of length on his backcourt shots to push the Dane back himself.

Fitness fuzz

The sort of bruising game style Sen has adopted sees him blaze in the opening game, and progressively spent thereafter. Rationing his wits and lung-power to last the distance is a challenge. The explosive game has limitations of footwork – a big blind spot – in the forecourt, and staying injury-free in itself is a challenge for someone prone to breakdowns.

Sen understands the implications. “Whatever I could do, I did on the court last few months. But playing better shots under pressure after a long rally is the challenge,” he says. Travelling physio Abdul will need additional cushioning of strength and conditioning work in the offseason. The last six months might be his first injury-free ones. There’s the last push though needed at what is the most important tournament of the season: the Worlds.

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