Lakshya Sen was stewing in dismay at not making the national squad for the Thomas and Sudirman Cups when a surprise invitation landed in his inbox.
It was Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, checking if the 20 year-old Indian would be okay to come over to his new training base in Dubai for a month-long sparring stint. Lakshya promptly agreed to a two-week spell and returned from the Middle East late last month, armed with an inside view into a top professional's assiduous work ethic.
On Thursday, in his second BWF Tour encounter with the Dane in two years - the first was in the second round of the All England Open in 2020 - Lakshya came apart in straight games. He began the first game by parrying attacks, trying to pin Axelsen to the back and retrieving in earnest. He was swiftly shoved to a 0-9 deficit in the second as Axelsen ran away with the match. The contest had been cut off from the official tournament live stream since it had been pushed to a late start. Confounded, Indian badminton fans flipped channels, some wrote angry rants on social media, and a few others, including Lakshya's coach Vimal Kumar, managed to catch portions of the first game on a grainy YouTube feed before it too disappeared. Sen eventually lost, with Axelsen triumphing 21-15 21--7.
The two weeks spent training, chatting and learning from Axelsen have been illuminating for the Indian. In August this year, Axelsen, along with his fiancé and one-year old daughter, shifted base to Dubai - attributing it, in a lengthy Facebook post to shorter travel time since a major chunk of tournaments are held in Asia. Axelsen's asthma and allergic rhinitis condition flaring in Danish summers with the accompanied 15-20 per cent drop in lung capacity also weren't ideal. The Dane trains at the NAS Sports complex, a premier facility in Dubai, which has had among its training guests, football sides Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, as well as Cristiano Ronaldo and Novak Djokovic.
"Lakshya was quite taken up by how diligent Viktor is, even in practice," Vimal points out, "Right down to the most basic things, like the shuttle-feeding routines. You learn that to get the big things right, you have to pay attention to the little things. Viktor is by himself at a new base, managing his own training, with no federation or major support structure around him. I told Lakshya this is what being a professional really means. The experience was an eye-opener for him." Apart from the Indian, Axelsen had invited a smattering of young top-60 names - England's Toby Penty, Brian Yang of Canada, Swede Felix Burestedt and Singapore's Loh Kean Yew, the latter whom Lakshya lost to in the Dutch Open final last weekend.
Lakshya has conveyed his willingness to travel to Dubai for further training sessions, and he as well as the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy have extended an invitation to Axelsen, should he need to, to train at the Bangalore facility in future.
Since the glorious run of 2017, Indian men's singles has been caught in a clump of insipid results. Sai Praneeth's bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships, a first in 36 years, was a rare reprieve. He was the only Indian men's singles player at the Tokyo Olympics, but couldn't make it beyond the group stages. Kidambi Srikanth didn't qualify for the Olympics and on Thursday, lost in his second-round match against world No 1 Kento Momota for the tenth straight time. In what now appears to be an infinite loop, he runs into the Japanese again in his French Open first-round match next week.
Now the third-highest placed Indian on the BWF rankings at No 25, Lakshya has long been declared the country's brightest Gen Z hope. However, he'll need to iron out the creases in his approach to launch himself beyond just being a promise-in-waiting. The boy from Almora who loves drowning opponents in the melee of his attacks, has to build the patience to play long rallies while not letting his pace slip. It's the worksheet he has to keep returning to and reminding himself. "When you're competing at that level you have to be prepared to face all sorts and kinds of styles and players, "Vimal offers, "Your game cannot be built solely on attack and if you give away easy points, your opponents won't let you off unpunished."
The weighty mantle of Indian men's singles future rests with Lakshya and he might do well to come good while he still enjoys the faith.