Lakshya Sen is one of those athletes from the younger generation who knows how to use social media well. He is a popular athlete in the badminton world now, as one could see at the All England Open recently when fans called out for selfies with him after his impressive opening round win against Chou Tien Chen, the fifth seed at the event. It was, arguably, his best performance of 2023 till then and he was soaking it all in after a hard-fought result.
In the next round, he couldn’t get past Anders Antonsen in a repeat of last year’s clash at the same stage. With that, another tournament where the Indian rising star had done so well in 2022 (reaching the final), witnessed an early exit in 2023.
A couple of days later, Sen posted a photo of a team dinner on Instagram with his coach Anup Sridhar, mentor Vimal Kumar and physiotherapist Heath Matthews. The responses to the post ranged from lecturing him on his diet to suggesting he was losing focus on the sport because of his brand building. It wasn’t much different when he posted a photo from Switzerland a few days later, where he was playing at the Swiss Open.
All this is par for the course in the life of a top athlete, but once again, proof that we don’t always know what goes on behind the scenes.
From Germany to Birmingham to Basel, Sen was not keeping well physically (more on that later). The European swing, where he had a lot of points to defend to keep his ranking, did not go as planned, and Sen knew it. Which is why he decided to take a break to rejuvenate. And while doing so, he felt he should share a message on his platform that it is okay to recharge your batteries every now and then.
“It’s important to take breaks and I wanted to share something with people out there,” Sen told Scroll over a telephonic conversation from Bengaluru on Wednesday. “Like, every few months, I take a break from the usual and go to a certain place. I have never spoken about it in the past, just used to keep (the conversation) only about playing. With Instagram, I’m trying to show something other than badminton. I think I wanted to also give a message that it’s okay to take breaks some time, reset and rejuvenate.”
Back in Bengaluru after his break in Goa, Sen took the time to speak after his training on Tuesday. His voice had evident excitement when talking about the tournaments to come, and he also spoke with clarity about the less-than-ideal season so far.
The 21-year-old’s start to 2023 saw him come up against friend and recent-regular-rival on tour HS Prannoy twice in two first-round matches. In Malaysia, Prannoy got the better of Sen while the result was reversed in New Delhi a week later. In the next round however, Sen’s defence of the India Open title was cut short by Rasmus Gemke, a defeat that saw the Indian berate himself post-match for an “unacceptable” start to the third game that cost him.
“I was continuously training throughout the offseason, even November/December didn’t have a break. I had a good off-season but then when I played the Malaysia Open, it just didn’t go that well,” Sen said.
“I picked up from India Open, where I got a good win against Prannoy. Then in Indonesia, I had a couple of good wins before losing to Christie. In Dubai, I lost in three games against Ng Ka Long Angus. So all of them were like really close games... like in crucial stages, losing out in the third set, and while closing out, I couldn’t like really find the sharpness towards the end of the match. Credit to all of them, they are really good players and you have to move on and work on yourself.”
And then came the European swing, where he had even more points to defend. After reaching the finals at the German Open (defeating Viktor Axelsen enroute) and the All England Open (defeating Lee Zii Jia enroute), this part of the calendar was kind on Sen in 2022. But this year, the Indian struggled to replicate those runs and has since moved down to No 25 in the world.
“In the last few months, due to the nose surgery as well, my immunity had come down a lot,” Sen explained. “I was getting sick very frequently with like something or the other. Nothing major but like I would not be at my 100%. Then especially travelling, I was getting throat infection a lot of times, then it will lead up to slight fever.”
“When I was playing at the All England, I had fever but I could manage the first match against Chou Tien Chen. One day before that, I was down with a high temperature and really couldn’t eat anything. The next morning, I had a lot of medicine keep myself charged with all the electrolytes. Everything I had, I put into that match. I had a one-day break after that, so I was just thinking about that match and how to convert it at that point and was under heavy medication. Again, after that match the body was like really week. So when I played Antonsen, the body wasn’t responding very well.”
The early exit at All England meant he had a few days to rest and the call was taken to go to Basel. There, he faced another opening-round exit, this time in a fixture you’d normally expect the Indian to win, as he lost in straight games against Lee Cheuk Yiu of Hong Kong.
“It was very tough for me to train as well that time too, but then I decided to go to Basel. I was feeling better, not like 100% but the fever had gone. We went to Basel with not very high expectations, that we pull off something great, but just getting those one or two match wins. But that didn’t happen.”
And while the defeats piled up for the season, the one thing that kept Sen in high spirits was knowing that even not at his best he was pulling off a good win here or going the distance in a defeat there. In an interview with Scroll in January, Vimal Kumar had mentioned how mentally strong the shuttler from Almora has always been. It is something he had to tap into now.
“Now it is just about getting back my immunity and then try not to get sick, because I think that is the one thing I’m really prioritising right now. Taking care of my health, and then, again, the same time trying to enjoy the training sessions. Enjoy what I do,” he added.
It helps Sen that the team around him is built to take good care of him, physically and mentally. Sen admitted that sometimes reading these critical messages on social media can get a bit much but he also appreciated the support he receives.
“When things are not going well, then there is a lot of criticism,” Sen said on the balancing act. “I read some of them (comments), but don’t take it to heart. I think those are the expectations of the fans who are watching the sport. I think also there are people who still support you. When I read those good comments, I feel good as well. Overall I just try to keep consistent, letting people know what is going on behind the scenes. Nothing to take away from from my training, whenever I get free time I like to do that.”
And the key, of course, is leaning on the right people for help if need be.
“I have a lot of good people around me. Prakash (Padukone) sir, Vimal sir. I also get to meet (Rahul) Dravid sir at the academy, with OGQ I meet Viren (Rasquinha) sir. All of them really motivate me. Then I have my friends, my brother, my family. I think it’s not just one person. I try to take it from those around me. Vimal sir and Prakash sir have made sure that the support system around me is really good,” he said, adding that the rapport he shares with the likes of Satwik-Chirag and Prannoy also helps on tour.
With changes in coaching and support staff around in recent months, there has been some trial-and-error to figure out the right set up around him. As things stand, Sen said he is physically fine.
“I’m doing a lot of things with the nutritionist,” Sen said. “I had started even before the All England, a month before that so that I really reach my peak in terms of strength. Then again, a very different kind of virus I caught in Germany. I don’t know how (laughs), if we look at it I don’t think we did anything wrong. It was a bit different to what I was facing after the surgery, I was having stomach upset, and then infections and stuff. But this time, even when I was sick, there was no stomach upset or like throat infection. Major part of the puzzle was solved.”
And now he calls this phase that is coming up for him, the end-game. Rested and rejuvenated, Sen will turn his focus to a period of the year that all shuttlers have had one eye on since the season began. His next target is the Asian Championships coming up in the end of April but from May, the path towards Paris 2024 begins.
“I think the end-game starts from the Olympic qualification. Really looking forward to playing those tournaments. And then just about getting those wins and staying fit,” he added.
As far as the Paris Olympics is concerned – where many see Sen as a contender for the podium at the very least – the next few months are going to be huge. First to set himself up off the court, and once the qualification phase begins, to bring in the points that will take him to his first Olympics. Staying fit is of paramount importance and Sen hoped that this recharging of his batteries will hold him in good stead.
As he had signed off in his Instagram post, “I’ve realised that it’s not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and self-awareness. Take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you all soon. Yours, Lakshya in #SenMode.”