When Lakshya Sen speaks, you really have to hear for his words above the hum of an air conditioner. When on court, he's all explosive energy and fast-twitch fibre. On Thursday, in his 44-minute second-round match at the All England Open that he lost 17-21, 18-21, the 18-year-old Indian took the fight to former World No. 1 Viktor Axelsen, announcing his arrival in the big league.
Lakshya has gained from flying under the radar, with the spotlight largely resting on Kidambi Srikanth and the senior singles players who have been struggling with form and a string of early tournament exits over the past year. On Thursday night, he was looking at his 'promising youngster' label in the rear view mirror, speeding on the highway to being a serious top-10 player within the next few years. Lakshya opened up an early 3-0 lead and flung a delicious half-smash to tidy up the point in a 50-plus-shot rally to go 7-all in the first game. Usually guilty of losing patience in long exchanges, Lakshya was only relieved to have acquitted himself and threw a quick look at his coach, Vimal Kumar, who held his palms against his face and shouted, 'be calm, be calm'.
Vimal has known the teen since he followed his older brother, Chirag Sen, to the academy as a ten-year-old. A year and a half ago, Lakshya's parents shifted to Bengaluru from Uttarakhand to offer him the ecosystem that he may need at an age where he's in the throes of a transition. His father DK Sen, a badminton coach who's reared many kids in the sport back in their hometown Almora, also occasionally travels with Lakshya for international tournaments, most recently the Asia Championships last month in Manila. "He's young, even naïve, and just having his mother around to talk to after a tough training session or a bad tournament might help," says Sen. "At his age, it's easy to get distracted and lose focus so it's important for us to look out for him."
Unlike most coaches, Vimal doesn't subscribe to the idea of policing his trainees. "You have to find the right balance," he says. "You don't want to be too protective or too lax. All I tell him is to take care of his body and offer no excuses before training. It's tougher than it sounds and essentially covers everything -- eating right, getting enough sleep and just having enough discipline. Outside badminton, I give him his privacy and don't hold him back from pursuing his interests. He loves watching movies and I don't restrict him."
For Lakshya, ranked No. 29 in the world, the past two months have been about finding his feet in the big league, and that of straddling hopes and yet not letting his own flight overwhelm him. You could see the pressure swamp him in the closing stages of both games, tugging at his wrists, forcing errors, squirting the sidelines and getting caught at the net. But for the most part, the Indian laid traps and mines beautifully in Axelsen's path, pockmarking his forehand side and matching the 6'4" Dane, with the wingspan of an albatross, in tenacity. Axelsen, coming off a rotten year eaten up by ankle injuries and a flared-up asthma, rarely pulled out his full-blooded smashes. After this match though, the Dane will perhaps keep an eye out for the Indian.
Speaking to ESPN after the match, Vimal said he felt Lakshya played well and did not get overawed. "Victor kept a good length and there was more drift in the hall than yesterday (Wednesday).This slightly unsettled Lakshya."
In many ways, this tournament has unwrapped the promise that is Lakshya Sen to the world. He came through to the second round on the back of a stunning come-from-behind win over World No. 18 Lee Chiuk Yiu and against one of the strongest players in the men's singles circuit on Thursday, he put up a brave, gladiatorial fight that was all power, pace, heart and intent.
He has arrived.