In the last month alone, two videos of Lakshya Sen have gone viral in badminton circles.
The more recent, of course, is when he fought back from match point down against Zhao Jun Peng in the quarterfinals of the BWF World Championships, winning three straight points from 19-20 down to be assured of his medal at the marquee event on his debut. It was badminton at its thrilling best, and without doubt, one of the matches of the tournament against a highly-rated Chinese shuttler. In that win, you could see the mental strength as well the attacking prowess of Lakshya. And, more importantly, it led to a memorable win.
The other was a couple of weeks earlier. Trailing 13-21 4-14 against Viktor Axelsen at the BWF World Tour Finals semifinal, the match was all but over for Lakshya. He could have easily decided to take his foot off the pedal and go through the motions, it was after all already a memorable tournament for him to have made his debut in the season finale. But the 20-year-old produced one of the points of the year (the commentators even thought it could rival best saves in the history of the game) as he threw himself to the court to retrieve and then ran back to the baseline to hit a no-look winner that left Axelsen stunned. The match was over soon after, but in that moment, with his never-say-die attitude, Lakshya impressed.
Across those two videos, the youngster’s growth was evident,
And it is that aspect of the game that came to his help in Huelva too, as he fought hard against 15th seed Kenta Nishimoto in the second round and later against Zhao to earn himself a place on the podium. It was also evident in the semifinal against Srikanth Kidambi, as he pushed his senior compatriot all the way, before eventually running out of steam. But with a bronze medal, and improving his rank to a career-best (for now) 17, Lakshya brought to a close an eventful few months on tour, a period that actually began with some disappointment.
In an interview with Scroll.in, conducted on the finals day in Huelva, Lakshya spoke about a wide range of issues. Here are the excerpts:
Has it sunk in, Lakshya? World Championships bronze medal on debut...
Feels quite good. From a tournament point of view, how I played in the matches and got the bronze... I am quite happy. The match against Srikanth bhaiya was heartbreaking because I was so close in the third game, it was a tough defeat. But also bronze medal means I have something to look forward to. It’ll give me confidence for the future... and now I will try to definitely better my results in the coming years. There are other major tournaments too next year.
The viral video from the World Tour Finals... while it was great to see that point, it is worth noting that the scoreboard was not in your favour. The match was almost gone and yet you gave everything to retrieve that shuttle. Is that who Lakshya Sen is becoming?
Definitely, that’s the kind of player I want to be. Not to give up at any point. From the beginning I have been like that... give everything no matter what. That tournament was a big one, a big match. I was down in the points, but I was trying to win every rally and do my best.
Lessons from Bali... three big tournaments, back-to-back, got to play the biggest names. What were your takeaways?
Got to play some good matches. I played Viktor and Momota twice. It was a tough draw for me in the first two weeks at Indonesia Masters and Indonesian Open. But the performance I had in Europe that helped go through to the World Tour Finals and it was a big tournament for me to experience. Got to learn a lot and in the middle I got time to prepare to World Championships as well.
At the end of 2021, how is your game different from what it was in, say, 2017? From when you were the junior World No 1 to now a regular on the senior circuit and a World Championships bronze medallist, how has your game evolved?
Compared to my junior days I am a little more patient. Trying to rally more. I need to improve this more for sure, but there are a lot more things to learn, but from then to now, it is a difference in my game. That I make the effort to play better strokes from the back, not just go all out with smashes... trying to build up a point. In the senior circuit, everyone is fit and the shuttle keeps coming back. You have to play long rallies, long matches. Preparing for that, I have improved my fitness.
When you became the junior world No 1 and had a good run in senior Nationals in 2017, you had mentioned that you try not to take pressure about the recognition and you just wanted to think about the next match. Is that the same mindset still? Is there pressure or do you feel an increased sense of responsibility?
Responsibility is there for sure. That I have to perform well and it only goes up after this medal. But at the same time, the experience I am gaining from all this, it will only help in the next tournaments whether it is Worlds or World Tour Finals. I will be better prepared, that will help me. Pressure will be there, but everyone goes through it. I have to go through that, deal with it with the help of my coaches and mental trainers. I will work on that.
Mental aspect is what eventually separates the talented players from the superstars, perhaps, at the highest level. Beyond talent, it is about mental strength. And in the quarterfinal, when you were match point down, that is probably the kind of situation you need to be the strongest. That’s when the preparations kick in, right?
Kaafi nervous tha, during those points. But then, both of us were tensed. That is what sport is. At that point, it was important not give up easy points. 17-17, 18-18... you have to take risk in going for a winner but also be safe that you don’t make errors. There were quite a few things going on in the head. But I am happy I kept calm through that and took the critical points to pull off the win.
At 19-20, obviously there would have been nerves. Were you just thinking about the next point? What helped you through those three big points?
I was just thinking a lot about what to play, rather than the situation I was in. That helped. A lot of tactical things going on in the head. I was on the faster side, so I could attack more and not give him the chance to attack me. In that stage, everyone will want to take a chance and go for all out smash, or all out attack in a rally. But, I was trying to be patient, and be sharp at the net... taking over the net from him. That really worked for me, and three of those two points I pulled out because I attacked the net.
The point at 20-all. Quite the winner when you were slipping. Did you catch Zhao by surprise? We can see he was a little stunned by it.
I slipped but still pulled out the winner. It was quite lucky. He was not expecting the shuttle to fall in. He was confused... he also seemingly misjudged the shuttle a lit bit. Sometimes a bit of luck helps (smiles).
At the end of the Srikanth match, you first fell on your knees in obvious disappointment. But what followed at the net was something badminton fans won’t forget. It was a lovely embrace.
Heartbreaking, first. When I lost the point... it was an easy mistake from my end. There was a lot of pressure at 17-20 and I lost that point. It was a good match though... and when I came to the net, I just congratulated him for the win and wished him for the final. You have to learn to take defeats, right? This will definitely help me in the future as a player. This experience was good.
You told Badminton Europe that your mom just wanted to come home and rest.
Yeah definitely, the immediate plan is to recover. I have played a lot of tournaments for the last two and a half months. I will take a little break and bring my body back then, from all the little niggles and pains. Then get back to training. I will do the other stuff I like during this time perhaps, must go and watch Spider-Man first.
Tokyo 2020 didn’t happen for you, given how the qualification proved difficult. Then you couldn’t make the India squad for Thomas & Uber Cup and Sudirman Cup. From those disappointments, you went to train in Dubai with Viktor Axelsen. And now at the end of 2021 you are a Worlds medallist. From disappointment to joy, quite the journey over the last few months...
It was tough [missing out on selection]. We had not been playing for a while, so the tournament [when the internal selection trials happened] was a difficult one for me. I was not finding my rhythm in that one match [that he lost at the start] and one bad day, I was out of selection. After that I played a lot of matches, and got my confidence back. Match by match, I got the feel. Lack of match practice before the trials, but yeah, I was always confident of bouncing back. The offseason training I did at the academy was really good. I feel I have become fitter after the pandemic. The training in Dubai for two weeks really helped me to get the match fitness. We played a lot of games there and it helped me in the Europe and Asia legs. So that stint was very important for me.
The time with Axelsen... coach Vimal Kumar recently said it was very important for you. Tell us a little about that.
There was a lot of off court and physical training before that, and the time in Dubai was for mainly on-court stuff, playing short games, attack vs defence, one versus one... it helped me. Like you could call that my pre-season. Just to get into the rhythm, it helped me a lot. To play different world class players for two weeks, with tough games, it was really useful.