Former junior world No 1 Lakshya Sen held his nerve in a thrilling men’s singles semi-final at the Youth Olympic Games to defeat second seed Kodai Naraoka 14-21, 21-15, 24-22 in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
The Indian, seeded fourth in this event, almost blew two massive leads in the decider before having to save a match point to triumph in a topsy-turvy encounter that lasted for 75 minutes.
Sen opened up a massive 11-0 lead in the third game, before Naraoka put together a run of points. Sen then wrestled the momentum back to take a 18-8 lead. But, despite looking down and out, the Japanese shuttler fought back in style to make it 19-19. Sen had two match points which were saved before Naraoka missed one on his own, and the Indian eventually closed it out 24-22.
Sen will now play fifth seed Shifeng Li from China in the final on Friday. This will be India’s second badminton medal at the Youth Olympic Games, with HS Prannoy winning silver in Singapore in 2010.
The match was off to a tight start with both Sen and Naraoka trading points on each other’s serves. But the Indian started to make a few errors too many and Naraoka built up an early 8-4 lead. Sen was finding it difficult to put together run a points as Naraoka then took a 11-7 lead into the mid-game interval. It was a nervy start by the Indian.
The first game did not quite worked out for Prakash Padukone’s protege as Naraoka drew first blood, 21-14. The Indian struggled to cope with Naraoka’s power badminton but showed signs towards the end of the game that he was finding his feet.
That momentum showed early on in the second game as Lakshya Sen cut down the errors from his racket and raced to a 11-1 lead. He was now keeping the shuttle in play more often and started to dominate proceedings. In what would turn out to be a sneak-peek in how the decider would pan out, Naraoka fought back in the second half but Sen eventually closed it down 21-15, converting his third game point.
The decider would be one of the most bizarre games in badminton in recent memory with both players going on to win streaks of points. Sen’s 11-point start was met with Naraoka’s 6-point run. After a 79-shot rally that winded both players, Sen had seemingly halted Naraoka’s momentum, before going on to reestablish a 10-point lead at 18-8.
But nerves kicked in for Sen who started spraying the shuttle all over the place and the second seed from Japan stormed back to make it 19-19. With both players back on square one, it was a question of who could hold their nerve at the end and Sen did just enough to convert his third point.
With this win, India are now assured of their seventh medal in Buenos Aires.