Wunderkind Lakshya Sen: Lessons from Viktor Axelsen propel Almora youngster to world championships glory

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Former player and decorated coach, Vimal Kumar, was hoping with conviction that Lakshya Sen would be able to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, especially after the Games were postponed to 2021. The young shuttler from Almora had started to make waves early in his foray into the senior circuit, beating some big names, including Asian Games gold medalist Jonathan Christie early last year.

However, the break due to Covid-19 pandemic did not help Lakshya Sen’s cause. Much like his peers, Lakshya had to shut shop and wait for the lockdowns to end. However, the Covid break had a bigger impact on younger players with tournaments getting cancelled. The Youth Olympics silver medalist also contracted the virus late last year, months after he picked up a back issue that bogged him down. Lakshya eventually missed the bus to Tokyo.

Cut to December 2021, Lakshya made history in Huelva by becoming the youngest Indian male shuttler to win a medal at the world championships. The 20-year-old won a bronze medal in his maiden appearance at the world meet, showcasing his renewed hunger to dominate at the big stage. Lakshya “gave his heart out” in the semi-final against senior compatriot Kidambi Srikanth but he fell short of a place in the final, losing the match in three games over an hour and 9 minutes of high-quality badminton at the Carolina Marin Stadium on December 18.

Lakshya’s potential was never in doubt. He has been regarded as the future of Indian men’s singles badminton but if his performances in the last 3 months are anything to go by, the youngster is already ready for bigger things.

Lakshya has looked more composed than ever, willing to play longer rallies and wait for his opportunities to hit winners. Against Zhao Jun Peng in the quarter-final, Lakshya showcased his mental strength by saving a match point and securing a medal. Against Srikanth, Lakshya’s improved defence and net play was on show as the senior compatriot found it tough in the first two games before he made his way back into the contest. Despite having played over an hour on Friday, Lakshya had enough gas to go the distance once again against Srikanth.

Speaking to indiatoday.in, Vimal Kumar, said he is delighted for Lakshya, and more importantly, his parents who have made a lot of sacrifices to see their younger son realise his dreams. Lakshya had shifted base to Bengaluru from Almora at the age of 10. Helped by his father DK Sen, who also doubles as his coach, Lakshya has got a fine support system at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru and the youngster is slowly but surely reaping the rewards for all the collective work put into his evolution over the years.

Throwback: 10-year-old Lakshya Sen during a trip to Singapore in 2011 (Photo Courtesy: Vimal Kumar)

“It’s a great achievement. What impressed me the most was the way he is playing with a lot of patience now. I can clearly see a change in his approach. He looks very calm, dealing with the defence situation. For me, that’s a sign of maturity. He is slowly making a mark at the world stage.

“We all feel very happy, especially his family. They have sacrificed a lot. His dad and mom, they are all from a small town, Almora. They shifted their children at a very young age to Bangalore. Now they have moved back here. I am happy that all those sacrifices are slowly playing dividends,” Vimal Kumar added.

WHEN LAKSHYA SEN LEARNED FROM VIKTOR AXELSEN

Lakshya Sen (2nd from right) during his training sessions with Viktor Axelsen in Dubai (Photo Courtesy: Viktor Axelsen Instagram)

Being dropped from the India squad for the Thomas Cup proved to be a blessing in disguise for Lakshya. The youngster was disappointed after the trials in Hyderabad but on the very same day of his return to Bengaluru, he got a call from reigning Olympic champion and World No. 1 Viktor

Axelsen. It was an offer to train with the Dane who had shifted base to Dubai.

Lakshya lapped up the offer and trained in Dubai in September along with Axelsen, Brian Yang and Singapore’s Loh Kean Yew, who will face Kidambi Srikanth in the world championships final on Sunday in Spain.

In Dubai, Lakshya got valuable lessons, says Vimal Kumar. The intensity of Axelsen’s training sessions was a big eye-opener for the Almora man, adds his coach.

“I think a couple of weeks in Dubai with Viktor Axelsen, he practised with him. If you look at the last couple of months, I think he got an opportunity many times to play matches against Viktor and Momota.

“Those matches, he realised that he can’t hit through a player. You have to be patient and work hard to put in a good rally and then create a winner. That is something he really understood when he played these guys. That’s a big plus. Hopefully, that showed in the last couple of tough matches he played. It was good to see him wait for the opportunities. I think that’s an improvement he has made in the last few months. Technically, that couple of weeks stint with Viktor in Dubai helped.

“It happened in September. There was a trail for Thomas and the Uber Cup here.

“When he lost one match in Hyderabad, he was dropped from the team. He was very disappointed. He came back and that exact day, Viktor did call him, they are in touch. He said he had shifted his base to Dubai and he asked if Lakshya liked to come and practice with him. He was also just getting settled in Dubai.

“Similarly, Loh Kean Yew also trained with them in Dubai. They also trained with each other. He is also playing really well. And there was another boy from Canada, a Chinese boy, Brian Yang. These 4 guys got together and practised.

“When he came back, Lakshya did mention the professional approach of Viktor, how intense his sessions were and how focussed he was during training These are the things that were a real eye-opener for Lakshya.

“He understood that being consistent is the key to shine at the highest level… the efforts that needed to be put in, he understood a lot of things.

“Even though we keep telling him, when you experience it, it makes a lot of difference. I think, in my opinion, that was a big plus factor.”

DAD DK SEN A BIG INFLUENCE ON YOUNG LAKSHYA

Vimal Kumar heaps praise on Lakshya’s father DK Sen, saying the ‘old-school’ coach is meticulous with his planning and ensures discipline with his son’s training routines.

“His dad is a big influence too. Being a coach, his dad helps him. He is also very meticulous. With the programmes and other things, he is from the old school, he ensures discipline and manages things very well with Lakshya,” Vimal Kumar said.

LONG, LONG WAY TO GO

On his return to India, Lakshya will begin training with newly-appointed coach, Yoo Yong-sung, who is also a two-time doubles silver medalist at the Games. The South Korean, who was the first foreign coach for the Chinese national team, will work with the Indian youngster until Paris 2024.

The World Championships bronze is indeed a great achievement, but it’s only the start of what promises to be an exciting road ahead for Lakshya Sen.

“He still has a long, long way to go. He is just starting his career. A lot of scope for many things to be worked upon. He should be a consistent top-level international player. That should be the aim and hopefully, this is a big step, getting to the world championships and reaching the semi-finals. We all feel very happy,” Vimal Kumar signed off.

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