Sense and sensibility!

As for his long term goals, Lakshya Sen — the World No. 108 in badminton — is focused on qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Lakshya Sen has come out of the junior ranks and is now concentrating on the senior events.   -  Vivek Bendre

As Lakshya Sen warms up to face Alap Mishra in the men’s singles final of the Yonex-Sunrise all-India Senior ranking badminton tournament in Bengaluru, there are a few familiar faces in the crowd.

Playing on his home court, the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA), Lakshya glances towards the sidelines and smiles at PPBA founder and stalwart Prakash Padukone, even as PPBA co-founder and chief coach Vimal Kumar gives him some last-minute tips.

Also in the viewing area are Chirag Sen and D. K. Sen, Lakshya’s elder brother and father. There is clearly no dearth of support for Lakshya, helping the shy teenager along in his journey.

On the court, Alap is no match for Lakshya, losing in straight games. The match has added significance for the Sen family, as Alap had defeated Chirag in the quarterfinal round earlier.

Once victory is sealed, a few eager children run up to Lakshya to get pictures taken with him. Lakshya obliges, and heads to the academy training area to start his stretching routine. Padukone drops in to congratulate his ward, as does Vimal. Chirag and his group of friends sit close by as Lakshya puts in work with the PPBA physio.

For someone who is yet to achieve great things on the senior international circuit, some may find it odd to see Lakshya being treated like a star. Not so for Padukone, Vimal and the other bigwigs instrumental in shaping Lakshya’s career. There is no doubt in their mind that Lakshya is a special talent, and they are doing everything in their power to ensure that he lives up to his potential.

Early successes prove that Lakshya has what it takes to justify the immense faith shown in him. This year, he has won gold in the Badminton Asia Junior Championship, silver in the Youth Olympics, and bronze in the prestigious World Junior Championships.

And to think that Lakshya’s initiation into PPBA happened as an afterthought! In 2010, D. K. Sen, a distinguished badminton coach at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Almora (Uttarakhand), brought a few young shuttlers — including Chirag and Lakshya — to PPBA for a national-level age-group tournament.

Chirag Sen, Lakshya’s elder brother, has been a great influence.   -  Akhilesh Kumar

 

Vimal, who was in attendance, saw Chirag in action, and was immediately impressed. D. K. Sen was also keen to get Chirag enrolled at PPBA, and both parties happily agreed. Lakshya, who was 10, initially did not figure in their plans.

But the younger sibling would have none of it. He was desperate to join Chirag at PPBA, though neither Vimal nor D. K. Sen were keen on it. Both Vimal and D. K. Sen believed that Lakshya was much too young to live away from family.

Lakshya, however, did not relent, and carried on with his demands until the elders gave in. It was agreed that Chirag and Lakshya would move to Bengaluru to live and train together at PPBA — a terribly difficult decision for his parents to make. “Of course we were scared and nervous to allow our children to move out of our home. They were so young, especially Lakshya. We could not really know what they were up to in a far away city. The comforting thing for my wife and I was that Chirag would be around to take care of Lakshya. Vimal and Prakash also assured us that both our children would be looked after well,” D. K. Sen recalls.

It was a gamble that soon paid off. A few months into his new life at PPBA, Lakshya won an under-11 international title in Singapore. Whatever doubts that Vimal and Padukone had about Lakshya quickly disappeared. The duo decided to induct Lakshya into a special programme, where talented youngsters were taken on regular foreign exposure trips to strong badminton nations like Indonesia, Malaysia and Denmark. Lakshya then began to collect national-level age-group tournament trophies like pocket change, to go with a few international titles as well.

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In February 2017, he reached the pinnacle of the junior circuit, when he became the World No.1. It was a major achievement, and propelled him into the national spotlight for the first time.

In early 2018, the country celebrated yet another major milestone moment, when Lakshya won the Badminton Asia Junior Championship in Jakarta. This led to an invitation to meet Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, felicitation functions in his home State, as well as a cash award of ₹10 lakh from the Badminton Association of India (BAI).

Once the hoopla died down, Lakshya was left to face a big challenge. The glory days on the junior circuit were coming to an end, and it was now time to prepare for the real deal. For Lakshya to be truly counted as a success, he had to make a name for himself on the senior international circuit.

This transition, in any sport, is tough. It is incredibly hard to stay injury-free on the physically demanding tour, and of course, the skill level of the seniors is a big step up. The umpteen easy smashes and unforced errors that Lakshya was accustomed to in age-group tournaments were going to be a thing of the past.

Vimal believes in easing his ward into the new terrain. He wants Lakshya to start by competing in less-intense International Series and International Challenge events, before graduating to the Grand Prix level.

Lakshya Sen with the legendary Prakash Padukone at the latter’s academy.   -  Special Arrangement

 

Lakshya’s first steps in this direction have yielded some encouraging results. His maiden title came in the 2017 Bulgaria Open International Series, and in May this year, he took a game off five-time World Champion Lin Dan before losing 21-15, 15-21, 12-21 in the second round of the New Zealand Open. A few weeks ago, Lakshya defeated Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn — his arch nemesis on the junior circuit — in the final to emerge as the men’s champion of the Tata Open India International Challenge held in Mumbai.

Laskhya has also competed in the odd junior international tournament. His recent bronze medal run at the World Junior Championship was his final tryst with junior competitions, Lakshya reveals. “It has been tough to balance junior and senior tournaments, so we have decided that I will play only senior tournaments from now on. The 2018 World Junior Championships was my last. Even though I am eligible to play the 2019 World juniors, we have decided not to give my entry. Now I can plan my senior tournament schedule properly, and train accordingly,” Lakshya says.

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To cope with the gruelling physical demands, Lakshya has been put on a tough training schedule, which includes a lot of strength and conditioning work. “I’ve made good progress, but I still need to work a lot on my strength, stamina and overall physique. For any badminton player, the lower body is important, so I’m working a lot on that. The PPBA coaches and physios have made a good training programme for me, and I’m following it diligently,” Lakshya says.

During this crucial phase, Lakshya needs all the help he can get. His parents made his life that much easier, when they decided to pack their bags and move to Bengaluru a few months ago. It has been a long six years since the Sen family has lived together, and Lakshya is only too happy to have everyone under one roof.

“I feel very comfortable now. It’s been very helpful to have my parents here with me, especially in terms of food. Before, I could eat only mess food. That was not ideal. My father comes to my training sessions and to tournaments as well. It’s lovely to have him around.

“On Sundays, we all go out together for movies or to restaurants and spend time as a family. I’ve really missed such moments,” Lakshya says.

This was how Lakshya looked some 10 years ago when he set out on his badminton journey.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Chirag, meanwhile, has been a consistent performer at the national level, but is yet to record a breakthrough international victory. The 20-year-old Chirag is, however, a vital presence in Lakshya’s life. “Chirag helps me a lot during practice and during tournaments, but he plays a much bigger role off the court. We are close, because he has seen me from the start of my badminton journey. He is great company. After matches, he takes me out and we have a good time together. That way I get to enjoy a normal teenage life,” Lakshya says.

As for his long-term goals, Lakshya — the World No. 108 — is focused on qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “But I’m in no hurry. I know it will take time for me to gain experience and do well on the world stage. I’m happy to work hard and dedicate myself to the dream,” Lakshya says.