On the Sunday of the India Open final, Lakshya Sen woke up to a lengthy text message from mentor Vimal Kumar. . The Indian head coach at the Prakash Padukone academy detailed game tactics he should follow, pitfalls he should avoid and a line at the end that summed up belief: 'You can beat him today'.
Lakshya - he of quiet fist pumps and muted joy between winners, racket-tossing-in-the-air after - did just that. The 20 year-old defeated reigning world champion Loh Kean Yew 24-22, 21-17, and re-did his little celebratory routine after winning the India Open Super 500 on debut. The Indian has looked in imperious touch throughout the tournament; shredding game deficits, wrenching momentum and making a world beater look like an academy mate he routinely smacks in training.
Loh came into the final without having to pick up his racket in the semis after his opponent Brian Yang withdrew. The Indian had his plans laid out neatly: vary pace, rob Loh of his smashes, use cross slices, half and hard smashes from the forehand side, counter smashes finding their way back with attacking tosses and prepare for net rushes.
The Singaporean appeared a touch sedate at the start, fumbling into net errors and falling behind early, 2-4. Lakshya settled into rhythm quick, guarding his corners well, bouncing back on his feet after diving retrievals, and even when pinned to the back court, appeared untroubled. He was calling the shots in the rally, setting the pace and Loh was left to respond, catch up or fall away. A scenario far from his liking.
He overcooked a round-the-head smash into the net to trail 8-13 while Lakshya let his trusted cross-courts pick up points at regular intervals. A string of errors from Lakshya in the closing stages of the first game had Loh jump onto four straight points and he was the first to arrive at game point.
That's when he committed several costly errors: at the net, sending one ballooning long and a third for which he'd probably be kicking himself - misjudging a return which landed smack in, clipping the corner of the backline. It's the point that handed the Indian the first game and he let out his first vocal expression of relief fused with joy.
Even the best can be brittle and Loh is still only 24 years old, getting used to the giddy heights of his newly-acquired perch as world champion. Though he began the second game with intent a few notches higher than the first, the edginess, and the weight of living up his new moniker, was slowly rising to surface. It was in full view when he botched a regulation jump smash from mid-court for Lakshya to move into a 10-8 lead. Loh could scarcely believe his rotten luck and threw a perplexed glance at his coach's corner.
At the opposite end, Lakshya was ticking his things-to-watch-out-for-from-Loh laundry list. Like he did when he brilliantly swerved his body away from the shuttle's path, sending back an incoming smash. He kept up a steady and mature game, blocking entry routes for Loh and playing the sort of sensible badminton he'd been grinding towards in training.
The two would later exchange hugs at the net, putting behind the fierce play. Both Loh and Lakshya followed their older brothers into the sport but turned out to be the stars that shone brighter. They've spent weeks together in Dubai training with Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, watching the everyday grunt work that goes into ruthless badminton. Off court, they hung out with Lakshya trying his hand at golf, a sport Loh already plays. They were two boys, 20-somethings, thrilled to have been handpicked by their sport's biggest name for sparring.
Around four months later, Loh became a world champion. Lakshya stood at the corner of that podium, with a bronze. The medals haven't changed much between them. Loh may have been the first to race to a major title, but he'll know that he has to watch his back. Over the past year, his Indian buddy has gone from trying to get a toehold on the senior circuit to being counted an underdog who can pull off a few good matches, and now winning his first World Tour 500 title.
This is Lakshya telling us that we better get used to it.