During the first game of the men’s singles final of the Tata Open India International Challenge on Sunday, a tight line call went against Lakshya Sen. The 17-year-old looked towards the chair umpire, who went with the line judge, and then towards his coaches Sagar Chopda and Sayali Gokhale, who just told him to keep calm and carry on.
There have been instances in the teenager’s international career when he has let such moments in big matches get to him and derail his composure. However, that did not happen on Sunday. Sen kept calm, carried on and coasted to a straight-game win over his biggest rival on the junior circuit, Kunlavut Vitidsarn.
This was a big match for Sen, for two reasons. One, he had lost in the final of the same tournament last year – to another Thai incidentally. Two, he had lost to Kunlavut in the semi-finals of the BWF World Junior Championships last month after taking a one-game lead.
In that match in Markham, Canada, Sen had gone on the attack right from the word ‘go’. He did win the first game, narrowly, 22-20, but then lost steam. Kunlavut took control of the match after that and won the next two games comfortably 21-16 and 21-13. “Kunlavut controlled the pace of the game very well in that match,” said Chopda.
Kunlavut had a similar plan to counter Sen at the Tata Open. “When playing Lakshya Sen, you have to play slow first, defend first and let him attack,” the world junior champion had told Scroll.in before the final. “If I attack and he defends first, it doesn’t work out.”
Having a game plan
However, what Kunlavut perhaps did not anticipate was that Sen too would come up with a plan to counter him this time around. Playing in a smaller arena in Mumbai compared with Markham, Sen knew the shuttles would travel faster. He could use this to his advantage if he controlled the shuttle in the initial stages and employ his attacking shots smartly.
That’s exactly what he did. The first game hardly saw any big jump smashes from Sen, which he is known for. Instead, he chose to control the rallies and not allow Kunlavut to dominate the net. The Thai ended up committing far too many errors and completely disintegrated. Sen won the match 21-15, 21-10 in 35 minutes.
“I had a game plan and I stuck to that,” Sen said after the match. “It wasn’t going to work out if I started with attack because he is quite steady in defence. I had to wait for my chances to finish the rallies and keep controlling the shuttle. The conditions were also fast so it helped.”
With a senior title in the bag to add to his haul of medals at three major junior tournaments (gold at Asian Juniors, silver at Youth Olympics and bronze at World Juniors), Sen can be satisfied with his performance in 2018. He missed the gold at the World Juniors but being fit and injury-free is more important to him.
“I struggled for three to four months this season due to injuries, first with my shoulder and then with my shin,” he said. “I will work on that – to maintain my fitness and stay injury-free for the next season.”
Focus on senior circuit
Because of his injuries and planning his season around the three big junior tournaments, Sen’s senior world ranking has slipped from a high of 69 in June to 115 as of Monday. In 2019, the aim will be to get that ranking back up by playing only in senior events and hope to qualify for tournaments of the level Super 500 and above by the end of the year.
“He missed out on gold at the World Juniors but that’s it for him in the junior category,” said former chief national coach U Vimal Kumar, who is part of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, where Sen trains. “He is over it now and himself wants to focus on seniors.”
Completely moving away from the junior circuit would only bode well for the youngster, who will turn 18 next year. After all, in the few senior tournaments that he did participate in this season, he provided enough evidence that he can do well. One of the most memorable moments of the season for him would be his two matches against the legendary Lin Dan. Sen took the two-time Olympic champion to three games on both occasions but could not find a way to win.
“He has learnt from those defeats,” said Chopda. “The good thing about Lakshya is that he never gets disheartened. Whether it was Lin Dan or Kunlavut, he was eager to learn where he went wrong and how he could improve.”
Sen will now head back to the academy in Bengaluru and participate in the All India Senior Ranking Tournament in the city next week, before taking part in the Premier Badminton League. For next season, he is only looking as far as the Senior Nationals in February for now. After finishing runner-up and semi-finalist in the last two editions, the 17-year-old wants to win it this time. “It’s a big tournament for me,” he said. “I will try my best to win it.”