This fight. You are either born with it or you simply don’t have it. No one can teach it to you. And each time Lakshya Sen found himself in a corner over the last two weeks, he fought his way out not just through big shots but with the quiet belief of a veteran.
It makes him a guy who doesn’t know when he is beaten and if you ask any player, such an opponent is the most dangerous to play against because they will keep coming at you.
When the dust settled on the All England Open men’s singles final, Viktor Axelsen had beaten Lakshya Sen in straight games 21-10, 21-15. But the match had taken 53 minutes and it featured several long rallies; rallies that tested the patience and the resilience of both the players.
And despite everything the scoreline might tell you, Sen did what he planned to. He stuck to his guns but showed the world that he has truly arrived. This was the 20-year-old showing the world that he belongs at this level in a tournament that had one of the strongest fields in recent times.
For former world no 16 Aparna Popat, the defining aspect of Sen’s rise has been his mental resilience.
“You see him stand on the court and you can just see that he believes,” Popat told Scroll.in. “There is a certain belief in his method and because results have gone his way, he knows it is working. Earlier, there might have been the thought that this is a flash in the pan but this is proof – his consistency of shots and thoughts is a big step forward.”
Popat added: “Axelsen won but Lakshya was competitive. There was a 70-shot rally, there was a 61-shot rally and there were so many long rallies. This was Lakshya forcing Axelsen to play a little differently from how he usually does. It was a mature approach that belied his age.”
It didn’t work on the night but it had worked at the German Open a week ago. Axelsen had looked to smash Sen off the court then but everything kept coming back and then in a moment of genius, the Indian fought back from 9-16 down in the decider to win his first match against undoubtedly the world’s best.
The defeat might have given pointers to Axelsen ahead of the All England Open final but given that they trained together in Dubai, there must have already been a feeling of familiarity.
What has changed?
In this year alone, Sen has now beaten 2021 Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, 2021 Olympic bronze medal winner Anthony Ginting, 2021 World champion Loh Kean Yew, 2021 Worlds bronze medalist Anders Antonsen and 2021 All England champion Lee Jii Zia. Those results mark him out as a player on the rise; one that everyone will now keep an eye on.
Something about Sen’s game has changed for the better. Something has started clicking.
Former world no 8 HS Prannoy, who played Sen at the India Open and the German Open, feels that getting the right results and being able to keep playing was the trigger.
“The last couple of years, he was just coming into the circuit,” Prannoy told Scroll.in. “But in the last year or so, he has played a lot of matches and that has helped with his form. There have been close matches and he has won them. The confidence gained is a huge thing at this point.”
Prannoy added: “That said, this wasn’t his level six months back. He now seems like a player who understands what is working for him. So he isn’t trying too much or randomly experimenting – just sticking to what is working.”
The big and rather obvious improvement has been in the defence. Players have struggled to break Sen down and that, in turn, has led to errors.
“It may seem like Lakshya is rather young still,” said Popat. “But he has had a tremendous amount of exposure over the last decade – youth camps, exposure trips, different coaches – and he has probably played a lot more badminton than others his age. No one in Indian badminton has been invested in like this before. It was always about him finding his feet. It took a while but now he is bringing it all together and making it work for him.”
And, of course, Sen is building on the base that is his defence. It is his ultimate strength at the moment.
“Defence has improved a lot in the last few months. He has a new coach (Two-time Olympic medallist Yoo Yong Sung of Korea) and that has probably helped him,” Prannoy added. “Something similar had happened when I had trained with Mulyo (Handoyo). Certain programmes can really get the best out of you and that is happening for Lakshya right now. He must be feeling invincible. He is probably not having to even think about his next shot, it is just flowing.”
Popat pointed out that the improved defence is also down to the footwork. In the past, he would often be scrambling to get to the shuttle. But now he just seems to already be there.
“There has probably been a lot of work done but this, according to me, is also down to him playing in different conditions and a lot of different players over the last couple of years. He just feels settled on court and is adapting so much better,” said Popat.
What comes next
For Prannoy, Sen’s biggest challenge is going to be what comes next.
“His game isn’t going to change a lot but the way others players look at it will change,” said Prannoy from Switzerland. “There will now be a lot of eyes on him. Loh Kean Yew became the World Champion recently but people have already sketched him. So there will be greater pressure on Sen too but he seems to be ready. He is young and should be able to cope.”
There are, of course, things that Sen needs to add to his game and that is something all top players have to keep doing but for now the 20-year-old knows that he is capable of challenging and beating the best in the world. And that, as anyone will tell you, is a very good place to be in.