BWF World Championships 2021 in Spain’s Huelva was the most recent tournament where Indian shuttlers tasted international success, with veteran Kidambi Srikanth winning silver and fast-rising young prodigy Lakshya Sen settling in for bronze, his biggest achievement in a gliding career to date. Now, with the venerated $990,000 All England Open Badminton Championship, the oldest Super Six tournament on BWF calendar, starting on Wednesday at the Arena Birmingham, Indian badminton fans finally find a steadfast shuttler in Lakshya Sen, who can reinvigorate their fantasy in men’s singles.
Although Srikanth defeated Sen in the BWF World Championships semifinal, his patchy form would not keep him in count among the favourites for the coveted men’s singles title.
Sen, in contrast, has built himself as a giant killer in marquee tournaments. His recent spout in the BWF tournaments made him India’s favourite contender for an elusive All England Open title. In the latest BWF men’s singles rankings, the Almora boy has trumped former World No. 1 Srikanth based on his recent runner-up finish at the German Open Super 300 tournament. Though he lost to a lower-ranked rival Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand, who was ranked 20th at the time of the final, in straight games, Sen was still the biggest attraction of the tournament because of his giant-killing act.
Swift rise of Lakshya Sen
Handpicked by Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar at the age of 11 from a junior national camp in Dehradun, Sen has been on a roll of late. Apart from winning the bronze medal at the BWF World Championships in his first appearance, where he became only the fourth Indian male to win a medal at the Worlds, he made a last-four finish at the BWF World Tour Final 2021 and then clinched his first Super Series title, winning the India Open Super 500 beating World Championships gold medallist Loh Kean Yew of Singapore, who defeated him in the Dutch Open 2021.
His transition from junior circuit to senior court is quite swift.
In the last two and half years, Sen worked hard on his game, especially on defence and finishes, and fitness under the watchful gaze of former coach Vimal Kumar and newly appointed Yong Sung Yoo at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru. Fitness coach Abdul Wahid too played a vital role in improving his endurance level, which made him quick on foot and enabled him to play faster rallies on the court.
Despite the promises of 2021, there was big doubt raised on his ability to win bigger crowns that feature top shuttlers of the game. Many even attributed his World Championships bronze to an easy draw where some of the big names of badminton were absent due to COVID-19 pandemic-enforced health protocol. Even his senior countryman Kidambi Srikanth had to give the India Open 2022 a miss after he tested positive for COVID-19. Several other stars also skipped the event, which reduced the competition at the New Delhi event. Even then, he defeated reigning world champion, Loh Kean Yew, in straight games (24-22, 21-17) in 54 minutes, displaying his improved attack and impeccable defence.
Still, the doubt was there about his ability to beat badminton’s major names. At the German Open in Mülheim, Sen gave a strong response to his critics, shattering those doubts, getting the better of the likes Kantaphon Wangcharoen of Thailand, fourth seed Anthony Ginting of Indonesia and his experienced compatriot HS Prannoy in straight games. But, the match that garnered the maximum interest and established the veracity of Sen’s skills and game temperament was the semi-final, where he notched up a thrilling 21-13, 12-21, 22-20 win over Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen.
This win against World No. 1 Axelsen not only raised his confidence level before the All England Open but also revealed the true potential of Sen. World No. 11 Indian showed his game character against a dogged opponent, who won the Tokyo Olympics gold in straight games, to take the first game 21-13 and then lost the second 12-21 but made an unexpected return to the play to rattle the Dane 22-20 in the third game to advance to the final. In the third game, at one point, it looked like Axelsen would take away the match leading 16-9. But instead of getting bogged down under pressure, Sen upped his ante and took the pressure on the other side of the court. He dived around to retrieve Dane’s bustling smashes and was smart enough to counter punch whenever he got the opportunity. In the end, in a narrow nerve crunching game, Axelsen wilted under pressure while Sen held his nerves and prevailed.
This victory was, of course, sweeter than the runner-up finish at the German Open as it was his maiden win against Axelsen, who had won all their previous four meetings. And it suddenly brought Lakshya Sen under the spotlight and made him India’s favourite contender for the All England Open men’s singles title.
It would be great if Sen wins the glamorous honour of the sport, but at 20, a loss would not be the end of the world for the unseeded Indian men’s singles specialist. At this juncture of his career, Sen would be expected to continue with his giant-killing act, and if he returns with anything more than that from the Arena Birmingham that would be a stunning bonus for him.