Lakshya Sen is only 20. The youthful exuberance is visible in the 360-degree backhand returns. He does not mind turning full circle to handle the drift better as long as the eyes follow the shuttle.
On Sunday, the talented shuttler from Almora may have lost the All England Badminton Championship 2022 final to World No 1 Viktor Axelsen, but he has announced his arrival. As he breaks into the top 10 in the new world rankings which are expected next week, the quest for Olympic glory will begin.
Sen has already scripted history by becoming the fifth Indian — Prakash Nath, Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand and Saina Nehwal being the torchbearers — to play the final of the Super 1000 event. He is also the first Indian man in 21 years to achieve this milestone.
His coach, U. Vimal Kumar, feels Sen toughened up while travelling alone in Europe, which helped his game. "He was all alone in some of the European tournaments. There was no coach or physio. Subsequently, we could send his father to Jakarta. By the time he was there for the Indonesian Open, he was in a good mental state; that is how you develop a personality. I encourage such things.
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"I believe in a person coming up, not fully dependent on people. I wanted him to evolve that way; that was our basic approach. I am happy to see him taking decisions and implementing a lot of tactical aspects," he told Sportstar on Tuesday.
Sen had entered the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy when he was 10. Kumar, the director of PPBA, witnessed his journey from a kid to a teen and lauded his temperament.
"He is one of the top players in the world. What I observed is the tactical acumen, there is a considerable improvement there. He deals with situations in a calm way, and the temperamental aspect is a big factor. These things matter at the elite level."
"He is an attacking player. And now, he is able to defend patiently and convert that into an attack. I am seeing this improvement in the last six months," he said, adding that Sen lost to a better opponent. "Axelsen was dominating him and he did not allow Lakshya to get to the net. He pinned him to the back and exploited that aspect."
How mental conditioning works
The mind plays a major role in any sport. It is no different for shuttlers at PPBA till they reach a certain age to meet sports psychologists.
"The mental aspect comes into play from a young age. The rigours you go through between 10-15 years. That is the toughening process. Getting up early in the morning, you go through a tough training session before rushing to school. Coming back, doing homework and then going back to play again are things you should not feel sorry for. That is the first priority. They can't shy away from such things," reasoned Kumar, a Dronacharya awardee.
Sen has been interacting with sports psychologists, Gayatri Vartak being one of them, at the academy. "They visit often. The Olympic Gold Quest helps us. Lakshya interacts with the mental training aspect. Those things are helping him."
Training in Dubai with Axelsen was also an eye-opener for Sen. "He was impressed how Viktor organised the whole thing all by himself. The coaches, trainers, practice partners, practice sessions. He realised that even at that level, Viktor was doing that, and compared to that, he was in a much better stage in India where everything is spoonfed. In Asian countries, badminton players are controlled. The federation, coaches, we all decide," said Kumar, who was bronze medallist in badminton in the Asian Games men's team event in 1986.
Handling the media glare
Now Sen has to handle the spotlight and attention because every move will be watched. "You cannot run away from these things. You have to cope with it. As long as you are able to train properly and be able to play tournaments, take care of the body, everything will fall in place. Don't think about what others would think or what the media would say," he added.
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Sen is a product of the decision taken by Prakash Padukone to graduate the seniors and bolster the training of junior shuttlers at his academy in 2011. Not too long ago, he would beat Saina Nehwal for fun at the practice sessions in the academy. Today, he already has a World Championship bronze and an All England silver.
Padukone won All England at 25, Gopichand at 28. Sen has age on his side to turn the silver into gold in the coming years.