One for the team, from Lakshya Sen
After three successive defeats in the Thomas Cup, Lakshya Sen would deliver when his team needed him the most.
Lakshya Sen collapsed to the green court. Then he bounced off it, hugged his coach and pumped his fists in exhilaration toward the rest of the Indian badminton team sitting in the stands of Bangkok’s Impact Arena. Moments ago, the 20-year-old had played the most delicate of net shots, dribbling the shuttle over the white cord at an angle that was far too acute for Anthony Ginting to return.
Sen had turned around a shocker of an opening game, and a 4-point deficit in the decider to beat the Olympic bronze medalist 8-21, 21-17, 21-16 in the first match of the Thomas Cup finals. A couple of days earlier, Pullela Gopichand had compared India making the final of badminton's world team championships to India reaching the final of the 1983 cricket World Cup. If 14-times Thomas Cup champion Indonesia were the Calypso giants of the 80s then Sen had just pulled off the equivalent of Balwinder Sandhu sending Gordon Greenidge’s stumps cartwheeling at the start of the West Indies run chase.
Sen had put his side right where they wanted to be. 1-0 up. His start would provide the momentum that would put India on course for a 3-0 win and a historic Thomas Cup title. After the match, Sen would begin by thanking the rest of his teammates. “This one’s for the team. They’ve been backing me throughout my bad performances.”
The team has been backing him for a while now. A couple of days before the start of the tournament Kidambi Srikanth posted a picture on his Instagram account. '#onamission' he’d captioned the image – a group photo of the entire Indian team after landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. The entire team with one omission.
Sen wasn’t in the frame. He’d arrived separately in the Thai capital a couple of days ago. Danish player Hans Christian Vittinghus couldn’t help but have a bit of a dig. “Very nice to know you left Lakshya at home,” he commented. “He’s reached before everyone,” Srikanth shot back.
While Sen was very much in Bangkok, over the first five ties of the tournament, you might have wondered exactly which version of him was there. As world number eight, the 20-year-old was India’s number 1 ranked singles player. Yet with the exception of the opening match against minnows Germany, India found itself 1-0 down for the last three matches. As India pulled off one win after another and headed into a historic final on the back of thrilling edge-of-the-seat 3-2 wins, Sen found himself unable to get the team the start it wanted.
He had lost matches to Chou Tien Chen, Lee Zii Jia and Viktor Axelsen. With the exception of the match against Chen, he’d lost the other two in straight games.
Things were obviously not going to plan. He had picked up a bug early in the competition. And the drifty courts where the shuttles fly faster on wind currents at the stadium meant his frantic rallying, retrieving style wouldn’t have the same effect as it did in the fairly still halls of Huelva, where he’d won his first world medal, and Birmingham, where he reached the All England final, and Mulheim, where he’d beat Ginting and Olympic champion Axelsen in consecutive matches. While Sen returned to play for his side, it was clear he wasn’t physically at his best. Incidentally, he has pulled out of next week's Thailand Open.
It’s true that Sen helped simply by being with the team. As the very tip of the Indian spear, playing the best singles player of an opposing side, Sen could ensure India’s second and third choice singles players Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy faced relatively easier matchups. Indeed, they would go on to win every match they played and were crucial to India’s progress to the final.
It’s easy in a situation like Sen’s to feel discouraged and isolated. Unlike his other teammates, Sen isn’t part of the Hyderabad Gopichand Academy. He was also a surprising omission from last year's Thomas Cup side after he lost his selection trials.
India's former number 1 singles player Parupalli Kashyap provides the perspective. “Unlike in other countries where the team is the priority, badminton in India is very individual driven. Everyone is competing for the same places in teams, the same tournaments, and the same contracts. But there’s a difference in the way this side operates. Everyone has been taking the initiative to help each other. All that helps. It doesn’t seem like much but it gives you that 5 per cent boost when you need it the most,” says Kashyap.
Indeed, in Thailand, there were team dinners and group meetings. Sen was cheered by his teammates through each of his matches. And he was right with the rest of the group chanting for the next Indian on the court and vaulting over signboards to the court after every team win. Despite his losses, Sen had an additional advantage of being in a team. “In an individual tournament, if you lose you are out. The one advantage of the teams format is even if you aren’t playing well you get a second chance if your team does well,” says Kashyap.
Sen, too, seemed to thrive on being part of a group. “The last hurdle. The big one. Let’s do this, TOGETHER,” he posted just before the final. Of the four posts Sen has put up on Instagram after the start of the tournament, he has used the word ‘together’ in two of them.
It was Sen alone on the court against Ginting on Sunday morning, though. Sen had beaten Ginting comfortably in their only previous encounter in Germany, but the Indonesian was out of his element that day. In Thailand, with conditions more suitable to his playing style, Ginting transformed into a jump-smashing dynamo. Fresh off a win over two-time world champion Kento Momota in the semifinal, he blitzed past a bewildered Sen in the opening game.
But just when it looked like Lakshya would lose a fourth successive match in the Thomas Cup, he found a second wind. As the players changed sides and Lakshya stepped on the favourable side of the court, he turned things around. He started attacking more. “The strategy was to push him back. I could play drives knowing that the shuttle would stay in and then I could cover the net,” he’d say.
With Sen turning up the heat and with the drift carrying Ginting’s clears long, it was the Indonesian’s time to be out of ideas. As he started to panic, Sen remained composed. Even when Ginting took a four-point lead in the decider, Sen kept his cool knowing he’d be able to claw his way back once he got on the favourable side again. There was little in Sen’s game that hasn’t been seen before. His retrieval kept him in the rallies and as his opponent tried to force a finish, he invariably hit out. “I don’t think he did anything extraordinary. He played to his potential. But in a high-pressure situation like the Thomas Cup final, even that is remarkable,” says Kashyap.
Sen would admit to being nervous in the end. “In the closing stages, I was really nervous. I was trying to overcome it with deep breaths. It’s a similar pressure to when you are playing by yourself. But this time, you have the whole team backing you,” he’d say.
The team had done so for the whole tournament. And when the team needed it the most, Sen would deliver.