There is at the outset his authenticity sprinkled with dry humour when responding to tricky posers. Ask Lakshya Sen about his junior-days’ batchmates, Kunlavut Viditsarn and Kodai Naraoka, fellow Top Tenners who routinely make tournament finals while he battles early exits. He feints a frown and says, “Thodisi jalan hoti hai.” He feels a tad jealous. In that acceptance lies self awareness, recognising he has work to do to catch up with peers.
But ask him if Viktor Axelsen is leagues ahead of everyone, and Sen says, the Dane is consistent ‘right now’ but not unbeatable. No player is too mighty to defeat. When he finally ends a run of losses against HS Prannoy at the India Open Super 750, winning 21-14, 21-15, his ambitions go beyond reversing head-to-head scorelines. It’s the India title he wants to defend. “Pick up where I left off last year from.”
There’s a simpler reason in aerodynamics that makes Lakshya Sen the guy to back, at big events, contesting the big titles. Global biggies get hosted in bigger arenas, with slower shuttles. Slower shuttles are kinder on Sen’s defence, which can even look spectacular in his reflexes when he has time on his hands, and negate opponents’ whirlwind attacks – like it did Prannoy’s on Tuesday, and Axelsen’s back in Germany when he was beaten by the Indian.
Give Lakshya Sen a slowish court, and he literally can beat anyone with a mix of his own relentless defence and a competent attack.
But more than a fast-whizzing or slow-wheezing bird, it is Sen’s confidence in tiding over a typically challenging sophomore season these last six months that marks him out for a steep up-climb in performances in coming months. Second season blues and stutters are fairly common – but Sen has managed to learn from setbacks and turn the first round lemony exits into prepping and game-perfecting lemonades.
Working with former international Anup Sridhar, Sen had a little more time to train after early ousters. His gym-work, his team says, has seen high intensity loading, always a good measure of the offseason. “Everyone knows Lakshya is good at the net,” Anup later said. “but today it was how aggressive he was today in taking his chances -smashing when he saw an opening that stood out.”
The Lakshya spectacle
Sen can get Indian crowds behind him, and he can fill up stands in arenas, though he quipped how he was glad he’d be playing a Dane next, given he had to share affections with Prannoy in Round One. “So I’ll have the full support of the crowd, not a split one!” But a Sen spectacle is best viewed from the breadth of the stadium – sitting in the bleachers square or perpendicular to the net.
For it is from there that you truly appreciate Sen’s net-charge – his trademark one-leg hop-smash, but more that power lunge stride forward that sets up his entire attack. Sen’s defense tends to be sensational, but his smooth striding and movements towards the net are a signal of his confidence, when he goes about slaying reputations.
For a Round One match, Sen struck some perfect lengths and the court conditions cushioned his defense, helping him pick from where he left last year claiming the title. Last week in Malaysia had been torrid, with the drift. There was also the blitz from Naraoka and Kunlavut to contend with – comparisons being expected, given he’s trained, travelled and competed with them. “Their performances motivate me to do well,” he’d say, priming himself for his own ascendance.