Vimal Kumar remembers an 8-year-old prankster’s face that could plunge into a puddle of tears when he was caught mid-prank. Lakshya Sen could also cutely pull a frowning face and pretend as if he had nothing to do with whatever unsavoury business had gone on. And then he also bawled when he lost a match.
Years later, Vimal would watch Sen play the All England final and beat World No 4 Anthony Sinisuka Ginting 8-21, 21-17, 21-16 to give India a 1-0 lead in the Thomas Cup final against Indonesia.
“Something’s changed totally. He feels like he can get these big wins. It’s some steel, determination that’s suddenly noticeable in him,” Vimal Kumar says of an alloy he helped burnish. “I told him many, many times that ‘When you are on the fringes, you can be dropped anytime. You need to become the best player, so that they come and say we want you to play in the team,” Sen’s mentor had said after the All-England.
Many more factors contributed to the 20-year old Sen growing up almost overnight. But the young breakthrough star had always abhorred being kept away from the sport.
“I remember Prakash (Padukone) once asked him, ‘Are you homesick?’ And Lakshya said, ‘Yes’. So we told him, ‘We’ll send you home tomorrow.’ He was taken aback and never asked to go home (Almora) again!” Vimal recalls.
— Lakshya Sen (@lakshya_sen) May 13, 2022
At other times when the young trainees at the Prakash Padukone Academy sneaked out to watch movies at the auditorium on the top floor when they were told to sleep by 10 pm, Vimal punished them in other ways. “The best punishment is to take them away from badminton for one week. They never repeat the same mistake. Though he was naughty, he never refused any training. But the few times of indiscipline, I’d quietly tell them, ‘Take a week off.’ That’s it. They hated that,” he recalls with a chuckle. “If they really value their game, they inevitably listen. Lakshya learnt this quickly.”
It’s democratic control over players knowing they are captive to the sport itself. “In Asian badminton, we try to control the players too much. I preferred leaving it to their choice. It has its pluses and minuses,” Vimal concedes.
— BAI Media (@BAI_Media) May 15, 2022
Yet another feature of Vimal’s coaching which helped the quiet boy from the hills open up to him was when he gave him a free pass to challenge his authority. “I used to tell Saina (Nehwal) too. A coach-ward relationship isn’t just about the game. I’d be fine if you argued with me about something in training you didn’t agree with. Talked back at me or even shouted back at me. I wanted my players to be independent. And though things have not reached a stage where Lakshya has actually screamed back, I’m very proud of the personality he’s developed.”
STAMPS OF GREAT GAMES
An independent, thinking-on-his-feet shuttler Lakshya might’ve grown into, but the nuts and bolts of his game, and some ramparts even, bear imprints of some famous games.
One of the identifiable characteristics of Padukone Academy trainees, one they consciously work on, are the net-tumbles. “It’s the academy’s ethos because Prakash was very good at the net, he dominated there and used it as a strength,” Vimal says. “Lakshya was obsessed with the smash and the jumps watching (Lee) Chong Wei and Taufik (Hidayat) videos. But we insisted that he work on his net game if he wants to be good at singles. Lakshya was systematically coached in that area.”
What a comeback by @lakshya_sen including this crazy point 👀 He takes 🇮🇳 to a 1️⃣-0️⃣ lead.
— BWF (@bwfmedia) May 15, 2022
Against Lee Jii Zia in the semis at Birmingham, it was that one extra net dribble that most frustrated the Malaysian. “It’s the counter-dribble actually I’m most proud of,” Vimal says. The option is always between lifting the shuttle which is easy, or stay with the dribble at the net. Most choose to lift, but Sen runs with the confidence that he can stay invested in the tight spun dribbles and then reap the benefits of opponents’ impatience.
Vimal personally also worked on Sen’s quick clips downing the shuttle and the sting of deception on the fast, attacking clears. There was also the chiselling of the lifts – should Sen have to opt for them, they were supposed to go higher than the rival’s hittable zone, ideally irretrievable.
This variety was used like a holding midfielder’s role in football – not to hoard points and dazzle but to construct, lying in wait and also as screens for an attack that he would sparingly use.
As coach, Vimal wasn’t too fussed about Sen’s losses to the likes of Thai Kunlavut Vitidsarn and Chinese Li Shifeng. “But after losing to them, Lakshya himself realised it was because they could retrieve and he was just trying to hit through them.” For a boy that cried after every loss in his colt years, the reversals silently hurt.
Vimal played alongside the Danish great Morten Frost between 1985-88 at England’s finest shuttle facility, the Wimbledon badminton and squash court. It’s where he watched Pakistan squash ace Jansher Khan do hill circuit runs for hours on end. But it’s also where he observed Frost’s defense.
“Morten was World No 1 then, and he used to train with a bunch of us – Darren Hall, Stephen Bradley, Stephen Butler. He only obsessively worked on his footwork and defense!” Vimal recalls.
Frost would play to his sparring partner’s strengths. “We thought we are running him close, but he always skipped to win in the end because defense kept him in play,” Vimal says, adding that Frost worked with Sen a few years ago on on-court thinking. There are shadows of that flick-switch thinking in how Sen has been going about finishing his matches.
“When he was really down against Viktor (Axelsen) at the German semis, he could up his pace and attack after frustrating him with retrievals. He did that to Kenta Nishimoto too in Jakarta after rallies of 40-50-60 shots. He can suddenly attack with speed, and that variation is something we used to just talk about. He’s actually doing it,” Vimal says, a tad pleasingly surprised.
Vimal reckons the success of Sen’s last two weeks can be traced back to the fortnight he spent training with Viktor Axelsen in Dubai. “When he came back from Dubai, he wanted to continue training on his new routines: the 1 minute, 45 second, 2 minute high-intensity drills where he also added new strokes. We didn’t want to curb the new thinking,” Vimal says.
New Korean coach Yong Soong Yoo – who’s slowly making a hybrid program for shuttlers at Bangalore combining the tough taskmaster Korean ways with Padukone’s training motifs – brought his own unique insights. “Why we preferred him was because he has worked with the bunch of Chinese juniors now graduating to seniors and their top doubles teams. He couldn’t go to Tokyo but we snapped him up, and his commitment in every session is incredible.”
The Korean taking over had been in the pipeline for a while. Propping up Lakshya’s defense had literally taken out Vimal’s shoulder. “The multi-feed sessions were important but we didn’t have enough sparrers for Lakshya. So I ended up sending down thousands of smashes in practice. We had done this for Saina too to prepare for Carolina Marin and Yohan Wang. After all these years it took a toll and I ruined my shoulder and back,” he laughs. The arrival of the Korean coach was a soothe for his overworked back.
His mind though was ticking constantly through the years in finding the best training setups for Sen. Be it the early ones to Malaysia and Indonesia, or the recent ones in France with Peter Gade.
Vimal’s first punt in coaching had been on the now-retired 2008 Olympian Anup Sridhar. “I had lots of hopes from him, and at 21 he was getting big results,” he recalls, of the shuttler whose game came undone by a series of heel injuries. “When we sent him to Denmark, he didn’t like it. Found it too cold and didn’t enjoy. I still wonder where he could’ve been had he stayed back there,” Vimal wonders. The academy graduated the seniors and brought in a new crop in 2010; Vimal was initially more impressed with Chirag, Lakshya’s elder brother. With Lakshya, Vimal desperately hoped, training in Europe would take root.
Having lived in England for 10 years, while Padukone trained in Denmark for six, the duo was well placed to steep Sen into the European brew. “The club culture and league are huge there. Even kids take pride representing their clubs. I wanted my players to do that, become team players.
“Prakash had told me that he was picked for Thomas Cup as national champion at 16 but not allowed to play singles. So he went ahead, played doubles and won. You never refuse to play for the team, that’s the mentality Lakshya should have. So I encouraged him to go play at the Asian team event recently despite him being in quarantine for six days and not getting to play. I told him, ‘Never mind, still play.’ He’d gotten his shoulder injured playing doubles in a team event in 2020, but I still will always urge him to play team events. I’m glad putting in that commitment is helping him become a better player,” Vimal says.
It’s why something might’ve snapped when Lakshya Sen didn’t make the Thomas Cup team. As the coach never fails to remind, keeping Sen away from a badminton competition always brings out a revolutionary riposte from him. This one took him all the way to the All England final.