How Lakshya Sen grew from talent to contender

The Lakshya of today is much more patient, a lot less edgy in long rallies and thinks on his feet. Padukone Dravid center of excellence.

When the computer made an entry into the Sen household in Almora, Uttarakhand, Encarta was still in the business of answering academic questions. Lakshya's first query for the now-defunct multimedia encyclopedia - who are the greatest badminton players? The name Rudy Hartono popped up in the list, and the Chinese-Indonesian legend immediately caught the young boy's eye. Hartano is an eight-time All England champion. "If he won eight of them, I'll win nine," a cocky Lakshya declared. He was still learning to grip a racket then.

Today, at No 11 in the world, he's a World Championship medalist, chasing the audacious ambition of his boyhood years. He is a member of the plucky band of early 20-somethings who've gone from seekers to disruptors. He's beaten two of the current top-five players of the world at least once. In his last four tournaments, he finished inside the top-three in all, and a title in one. Lakshya's streak of recent results catapults him into names-you-overlook-at-your-own-peril lists for the catalogue of major competitions ahead - All England Open this week, the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games a few months from now.

A big moment in his young career arrived last weekend with a victory over world No 1 and reigning Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, at the German Open. The following day, he lost in the final to Kunlavut Vitidsarn in straight games. "He was feeling pretty miserable after that defeat," Vimal Kumar, coaching director at the Prakash Padukone academy says, "As an athlete there's no time to dwell on a bad result, I told him. You have to move on."

The Lakshya of today - much more patient, a lot less edgy in long rallies, thinking on his feet, was built like a structure made of Lego blocks. The last six months were particularly instructive. Between October and December, he played eight tournaments and ran into one of Axelsen or world No 2 Kento Momota in four. He lost all those encounters, but not without running them close on a couple of occasions.

Last week, he finally cracked a way open against Axelsen.

"My body wasn't fresh after so many tournaments but the good thing about it (playing big names often) was that my belief in my stamina grew," Lakshya looks back at last year's ruthless schedule, "I could tell myself that I can go all out in a three-setter. When we're physically tired, we tend to give away easy points. I learnt to cut down on those."

The bigger leap has been in temperament. It was revealed in how he handled himself in the clutch against Axelsen. Trailing 9-16 in the decider, he turned around what was looking like an inevitable defeat. Lakshya dug in his heels and believed in his resolute defense, chasing down every shuttle. He chipped away at the seven-point gulf with persistence and calm, harrying Axelsen. In the face of the fightback, the world No 1 struggled to close out the match and made several errors in judgements.

Lakshya's blooming into a cool-headed trooper with an appetite for a scrap, Vimal believes, can be partly traced to the European swing of tournaments last year. He flitted between Tour events from Almere, Odense, to Paris and Saarbrucken alone, without a coach. "Suddenly, he was thrown into a situation where he had to watch his own back and take calls for himself. Those weeks on his own gave him a lot of time to think. We would of course exchange messages but I would tell him he could very well survive by himself, and should see a coach's presence only as a bonus. He learnt to deal with situations and apply himself better. From the Hylo Open onwards I noticed a lot of improvement in his handling of long matches and rally players. When he landed in Bali in November, it was a very different Lakshya."

A month from then he won his biggest medal yet - a World Championship bronze. He now features among only four Indian men's singles players to have done so. That night, sleep didn't come easy. It was his eighth tournament in ten weeks and Lakshya could feel his muscles revolt. "Everyone else had slept, so there was no one to talk to. I watched some Netflix and only went to bed in the morning. I was so tired but that medal made all the pain go away," he says.

While Lakshya was still away in Huelva for the World Championships, two-time doubles Olympic medalist, Yong-Sung Yoo arrived in Bengaluru, to assume his role as coach. Lakshya asked around and googled Yoo and his exploits. On his return, they began training together. "The way he strategizes for matches is quite good," says Lakshya, "I'm getting to learn a lot." On a regular day at the Padukone academy in Bengaluru, the South Korean stations himself beside Lakshya's practice court, a scribble pad resting on his knee as he takes notes and occasionally sprints over to relay them. Yoo, who coached the Chinese national team, says he was initially reluctant about taking up an India job. "My first impression of Lakshya was that he holds great passion for the game and desire to improve as a player," he says. It bodes well for both since Yoo is something of a hard taskmaster, demanding his pupils' unflinching devotion to a rigorous training program.

In addition to Yoo, a mainstay in Team Lakshya is physio Abdul Wahid. Both were brought in by Olympic Gold Quest, the non-profit that has stood by the Indian player with funding and support right from his junior years. Abdul accompanies the Indian player for most major tournaments. He is probably the guy who winces the most every time Lakshya contorts his torso and pulls off retrievals from terribly imbalanced positions.Their staple post-match recovery drill is a light jog followed by static stretches to cool down the muscles, drain out lactic acid deposits and focus on joint mobility particularly shoulders & ankles. "We also work on soft tissue release for tight muscles. At night we use Game Ready (a multi-modality recovery machine) to relax the muscles," he says, "I've been working with PPBA players since 2016, but since last year Lakshya has been my only focus. He has a super athletic body and my job is to keep him injury free and help him improve performance.

Lakshya too has learnt to take care of his body better. He is no longer shy to ask for a medical break during a match when he needs one. Something he couldn't summon himself to do during his semifinal loss against Brian Yang at last year's Denmark Masters. "I'm trying to get better at those little things - when to take a break, when to go all out, when to hold myself back, not to let my opponents' loose lifts go unpunished, not to look tired and not to let my shoulders drop," he says.

The change in Lakshya's attitude, his father DK Sen believes, followed the close matches he played against the biggies last year. He speaks of a visible shift in Lakshya's mental approach after those encounters. "Earlier he went into these big matches thinking, 'Ok let me play these guys, I have nothing to lose'. I was courtside for some of those matches. Before those matches, even when I was offering him a pep talk, deep down I knew it's an Axelsen or Momota at the other end, operating at a whole different level. But after some of those tight games that he played, he started feeling, 'arre, main bhi toh jeet sakta hoon (I too can win). He's not going out there to try his luck anymore. He believes he can win."

Unlike in his previous two appearances, Lakshya goes into this week's All England Open in Birmingham as India's highest-ranked men's singles player. The hopes are weighty, but he'll want to wear them light for his own sake. He's no longer the guy who'll count himself lucky to clear an odd round at a major tournament. He's crossed over from talent to contender.