BWF World Championships: Fearless Lakshya Sen comes of age in slugfest against Zhao Jun Peng

Lakshya Sen needed to save a match-point against Zhao Jun Peng to reach the semifinals of the BWF World Championships. Lakshya Sen

Lakshya Sen's explosive follow-ups at the net - the rushing lunge-pounce routine - merit a GIF of their own. It's the last act in a trusted drill which he backs, even with jangling nerves, at 19-20 in the decider, with a World Championship medal on the line.

He drew Zhao Jun Peng to the net for a brief skirmish, backpedaled to fling a straight smash and with his Chinese opponent stranded mid court, darted to the front of the court and put away the bird with steep finality. Zhao stood motionless, attempting a feeble no-look swat as the shuttle dropped between his feet.

Match-point saved.

Lakshya worked the next point off a backhand winner down the line while slipping, tripping with feet swerving out of position. 21-20. He then sent a cross-court smash sailing from his forehand corner, Zhao twisted his torso, collected it with his backhand, and bought a second to dig his fingertips onto the court to regain balance.

It's a blink of an eye. The space between two heartbeats. It's an eternity for Lakshya to bolt to the net for an almighty kill.

In a draw that shed its big names early, Lakshya, hungry, fearless and thinking on his feet, was ready for a crack of an opportunity. He joins Kidambi Srikanth on the podium, the Indian second men's singles player to do so this weekend. The outcome of their semifinal match on Saturday will decide which of them will fight for gold.

In Zhao, a leftie ranked 42 who he's never played before, Lakshya was assured a gritty fighter. The Chinese had come off a marathon that spilled into late Thursday night while the Indian had a contrasting, walk in the park pre-quarterfinal against surprise Tokyo Games semifinalist, Kevin Cordon.

Lakshya stepped up the pace early, staying in the rallies, making Zhao toil the diagonal, cleverly drawing net errors with his tight serve and employing his tumbling, trickling net shot to befuddling effect. The switch of ends after the first game arrived with problems for Lakshya. He struggled with the length of his shots from the faster end and his drives from the back of the court were being promptly converted into a clump of errors.

His errors seeped into the decider too but they were rapidly falling in count. The cross court smashes were ticking again, and Lakshya braced for a slugfest, aware that he was the relatively less stretched player on court of the two of them from the previous night. "I was prepared to rally it out," Lakshya said after the match, "I was confident I could rally it out."

What Lakshya displayed in Friday's match was character and mental strength to not wither away in a close contest, stepping out of the shadows of his seniors. For all the talk about the prospect of him being Indian's badminton's next big thing, Lakshya finally came good. The final three points of the match on Friday summed up the 20 year-old's belief and journey.

Handpicked and mentored by Prakash Padukone, who was India's first World Championship medalist back in 1983, Lakshya's greatest gift so far has been that he'd been nestled in a comfortable space as the boy who's trying to win. He makes no demands of himself and hurls himself into every fight. The Srikanths, in contrast, are expected to win. In 67 minutes on Friday, Lakshya went from being a promise that could be, to a racket-flinging victor waiting for his applause.