Towards the end of the second game of the Badminton Asia Junior Championships final, Lakshya Sen was leading 21-19, 19-18 against the top seed Kunlavut Vitidsarn, when the Indian asked for a medical timeout.
Sen had just lost a long rally to the junior world champion and although he was leading in the match, winning a point like that could have given Vitidsarn the fillip to force the match into a decider.
This was when Sen asked for medical attention, which broke the momentum of play. The 16-year-old appeared to get his right ring finger taped but then right before the next point was played, he moved towards his kit bag again.
The YouTube stream of the match did not show what Sen did at his kit bag as it cut to a replay of the previous point, but a smart guess would be that he took off the Band-Aid. He went on to then win the next two points to bag his first Asian Junior title.
This was not the only time in the match that Sen had been smart going about his business. In the first game, he was trailing 17-19, meaning his opponent needed only two more points to take the lead in the match.
This was when Sen, someone who loves to attack and finish off points as quickly as possible, resorted to playing safe shots and kept the rallies long. He also went for a couple of down-the-line smashes – he usually prefers the cross-court option – and bagged the game with a disguised straight drop shot.
Then, after his medical timeout in the second game, Sen sealed the match with a straight smash followed by a cross-court one. Vitidsarn had been bamboozled.
This was the first time Sen was playing the junior world No 1, but it appeared he had the Thai all figured out. “I have played him in practice four-five times, so I knew what he is going to do on court,” said Sen after the match. “I was very well prepared, and things were working for me today.”
Sen has now won a title that only two other Indians have managed to before him – Gautam Thakkar in 1965 and PV Sindhu in 2012. “I just got to know that I am the first men’s singles player from India to win this title in the last 53 years, so it feels really great,” Sen said.
One of the areas of Sen’s game in which there has been a marked improvement compared to last season is his defence. In the quarter-finals against second seed Li Shifeng and in the semis against fourth seed Ikhsan Leonardo Rumbay, Sen controlled the match from the net.
“Earlier, he had a tendency of retrieving the shuttle with a hard drive when the opponents played a smash,” said Sagar Chopda, one of Sen’s coaches at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy. “But in this tournament, he got the opponent closer to the net with softer shots.”
Sen’s improved defence has a lot to do with the time he had to spend away from the circuit at the beginning of the season. After finishing runner-up at the Tata Open in Mumbai last December, Sen did not play another tournament till the Osaka International Challenge in April this year. Towards the end of last season, he had picked up a shoulder injury. While he continued to play till the season ended, the doctors advised him some rest as 2018 began.
Since he could not train on court while his rehab was on, Sen worked on his physical strengthening, with a focus on the lower body, and fitness. “This helped me in my stability and my defence also improved as a result of getting my lower body strong,” he said. “Once I got back to court training, I started playing underhand shots and eventually worked myself back to fitness. My movement was still restricted in the first couple of tournaments but eventually I got my confidence back as I played more.”
Sen’s first real test came at the New Zealand Open in May, when he came up against two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan in the second round. Not many people would have expected the 16-year-old to give the legendary Chinese a tough fight, but Sen managed to take a lead in the match by winning the first game. Lin eventually switched gears to take the next two games but Sen had made a point.
Sen got another chance to play against arguably the greatest shuttler of all time later that same month, this time at the Thomas Cup. This time, he was more confident and looking forward to the match.
“When we got to know we were playing China, we told him you could get to play Lin Dan again and this time, you should go all out and try to win,” said Chopda. “He was like, ‘Haan bhaiyya, khelne milega toh achcha ho jaayega. (Yes, it’ll be great if I get to play him again).’”
If anyone thought the first time was a fluke, Sen managed to take the lead against Lin again at the Thomas Cup. But again, the Chinese used his experience to fight back and take the match in three games. Chopda, however, was very pleased with Sen’s performance. “He got the confidence to play three good long games. Secondly, his attitude is good. He is not scared to play higher-ranked players.”
However, those two matches against Lin Dan showed that Sen’s physical strength and stamina are still not quite up there. “He can last one long match, but he is not at the level where he can win multiple long matches in a tournament, which he will have to do at some point,” said Sanjay Mishra, India’s chief junior national coach.
Sen has also shot up in height in the last couple of years, which has resulted in him picking up injuries in his shoulder, shin and ankle regions. In fact, he was carrying a shin splint through the Badminton Asia Junior Championship but managed to go the distance with strapping. “If Sunday’s final had gone into a deciding game, we can’t say what the result would have been,” added Mishra.
Sen has got time to work on his strength and fitness ahead of his next big tournament, which will be the Youth Olympic Games in October, followed by the world junior championships in November. With the Asian Junior title in the bag, Sen has ticked off one of the boxes of his targets for the year. “Winning this title was one of my goals when the season started,” he said. “Now, I will focus on the Youth Olympics and World Juniors.”
His critics have always pointed to the fact that despite being a former junior world No 1, Sen has never managed to win the world junior title. By beating three of the world’s top five in Jakarta, and that too convincingly, this is his best chance to correct that statistic.