A few points into the opening game of their second round encounter, former world champion Viktor Axelsen engaged Lakshya Sen into a gruelling rally. The Dane controlled it for a major part and looked set to win the point. But his younger opponent kept chasing every shuttle till he was in a position to play a cross-court reverse sliced drop that caught his opponent flat-footed.
Such energy-sapping rallies soon became par for the course as Axelsen looked to negate Sen’s attacking prowess by giving the shuttle a higher trajectory and taking advantage of his own tall frame. The Indian still managed to win a handful of those rallies but he also lost quite a few, resulting in him bowing out in straight games in his first All England appearance.
He may have lost the match but his play won enough admiration from experts in the commentary box, who were speculating whether his game would disintegrate after he lost the opening game.
That Sen had the power to hit winners was evident ever since he broke on to the junior national circuit as a gangly teenager a few years ago. And with a dedicated trainer and physiotherapist, he has only grown stronger.
But just like any rising star used to winning easy at the age-group level, Sen lacked the patience to stay in the rallies till a proper opening presented itself and the wily Sourabh Verma had exploited this weakness twice in the senior national finals in the last three years.
Sen and his coaches at the Prakash Padukone Academy knew working on that aspect of his game was a prerequisite for his successful transition from junior to senior level and sent him to Denmark last year for training-cum-tournaments.
The Youth Olympics silver medallist responded by completing a hat-trick of titles and breaking into world top-40 at the end of 2019. But the start of 2020 once again raised doubts about whether he was ready for the Senior Circuit as he lost in the first qualifying round of Malaysia and Indonesia Masters.
The sudden rise in world ranking and the possibility of having a shot at Olympic qualification had only added to the pressure on Sen and that showed in the way he played in the two tournaments. This is when Vimal Kumar and the coaching staff asked the player to not think about Tokyo and just enjoy himself on the bigger stage as he was still a rookie and has nothing to lose.
The change in temperament bore immediate fruits as the youngster defeated Indonesia’s Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie in the semi-finals of the Badminton Asia Team Championship and played an important role in helping India win a bronze medal in Manila, Philippines.
It was a similar care-free approach that Sen adopted in his first All England appearance and that allowed him to pile the pressure on his opponents. In the opening match against Hong Kong Open champion and world No 18 Lee Cheuk Yiu, he took his time to get used to the court conditions before dismantling his opponents game with aggressive stroke play and a cool mind.
The second round against an experienced campaigner like Axelsen was always going to be a difficult and different proposition. But this time, Sen was quick off the blocks winning the first three points before his Danish opponent started to make use of his physical advantage.
Axelsen, the second seed in Birmingham, can be intimidating from across the net with his size and the way he moves on the court after winning every big point. But to his credit, Sen held his ground and matched his opponent stroke for stroke in the long rallies.
His tenacity was evident when Axelsen bagged a point after another long rally to open up a 6-2 lead in the second game. Sen was clearly tired at the end of that exchange and it was his weak push from the backhand that had finally given his opponent an opportunity to finish the point. It was at this stage, that the commentators wondered whether the Indian had anything left in the tank.
But Sen came out all guns blazing and put Axelsen under pressure with his attacking stroke play to level the score at 7-7 and kept pace with his opponent till the last few points in the game.
During that period, he successfully overpowered Axelsen with down the line smashes, tight net shots but more importantly fought for every point as if his life depended on it.
He did commit the occasional error of trying to play too tight to win a quick point or tactical errors like playing flat cross-court clearances against a player boasting of a phenomenal reach due to his height. But these tactical aspects of the game can only be learned with experience.
At the All England, Sen had nothing to lose and could go out and express himself on the court. But between his victory over Christie in Manila and an impressive performance in Birmingham, the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy trainee also suffered a first-round loss in the Austrian Open International Challenge where he was the top seed.
He had also lost his cool after losing the second round encounter to Christo Popov at the Irish Open, a week after winning the SaarLorLux Open Super 100 crown.
But these disappointments are part of a learning curve and the youngster would probably see many such ups and downs in the next few months as the pressure to win every time he steps on to the court will increase.
Then there is still an outside chance of Sen making the Tokyo Olympics cut if he can stitch together a strong run in one or two remaining Super 500 or Super 750 tournaments and it would be interesting to see if he can keep all those thoughts out of his mind and just enjoy himself on the court.
The All England performance, however, has shown that Sen is the future star of Indian badminton and the world’s best will now pay more attention to his strengths and weaknesses.
It will only get tougher from this point on but Sen should be relishing the challenge.
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