Seven years ago, a young boy walked up to coach Vimal Kumar and shyly slipped a handwritten note on his desk. Written in scrawny letters was a statement of intent, a desire to improve upon a match result. Vimal, under whom Saina Nehwal trains, was mildly surprised by the eight-year-old's grit and sense of purpose. Today, at just 15, that boy - Lakshya Sen - is the world's No. 1 junior badminton player.
"I still remember that note," says Vimal. "It's that attitude that's helped him make it so far, so soon." In the note, Lakshya had mentioned his defeat, complete with scoreline details, alongside partner Bodhit Joshi to the pair of Siril Varma/Kanishq at a junior ranking tournament. He went on to avenge the loss at the junior nationals the same year.
Incidentally, a national ranking tournament is underway at the Prakash Padukone academy in Bengaluru, where Lakshya trains, as we settle down for a chat. 800 juniors from all over the country have congregated for the tournament - stairs crammed with sweaty players lugging their bags or grabbing a quick bite at the cafeteria on the ground floor, anxious parents milling around the courts or resting in chairs and the air dense with the odour of pain-relief sprays. It's a life Lakshya is all too used to living on his own. And one that's gotten him thus far.
"It feels good to be the World No. 1 junior," he tells ESPN, "so when I'm at international tournaments, players from other countries know me by name. But rankings don't really matter as much to me as much as my game or my drive to win every tournament I play." Impressed by his talent, Padukone took him under his wing, offering him personalized attention and monitoring his schedule and progress closely.
Only three Indian junior boys feature in the top 50 and the gap separating Lakshya and the No. 2 Indian, Siril, ranked 17, is yawning - 8795 points, to be precise. Aditya Joshi was the first Indian male junior to scale to the top of the rankings heap in 2014 with Siril replicating his efforts last year; In February this year, Lakshya became the third. In fact, even between him and the next-best junior in the world, 18-year-old Chia Hao Lee of Chinese Taipei, there is a gulf of 1000-odd points.
Encouraging results over the past few months - a bronze medal at the Junior Asian Championships, the All India Senior Ranking tournament win and becoming the youngest runner-up in the senior nationals - have given his self-belief a mighty push. In his maiden senior nationals at the start of the year, an unruffled Lakshya took apart top seed HS Prannoy in three games to enter the quarterfinals. He eventually lost in the final to Sourabh Verma, who is nine years older than him.
"That tournament gave me a kind of confidence I've never had before. Seeing him (Prannoy) beat Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long in Indonesia last week made me realise that I too can do the same."
"Rankings don't really matter to me as much as my game or my drive to win every tournament I play."
Son of a badminton coach at Sports Authority of India (SAI) and with an older sibling, Chirag, who also plays the sport, badminton was always meant to happen to Lakshya. His earliest initiation to the sport, though, was tagging alongside his grandfather for club matches back in his hometown Almora in Uttarakhand. In 2010, when Chirag was brought to Bengaluru to be inducted into the Padukone academy, Lakshya insisted on staying back too. "That was the year we were taking in a lot of youngsters in and though Lakshya wasn't immediately identified since he was really small, his remarkable progress within a brief span of time made us take notice. It's after a really long time that we've found a special player," Vimal says.
Winning the Wimbledon U-19 tournament three years ago when he was just 13 catapulted Lakshya into the limelight and he followed it up with the Swiss Open Junior and Aros Junior U-15 Cup in Denmark, in addition to national titles in the U-15 and U-17 age categories.
In the months ahead, two crucial tournaments await him - the Asian Junior Championships in July and the World Junior Championships in October. He's not being hurried into making a complete and immediate transition into the senior circuit, says Vimal. In a week's time, Lakshya and a few other juniors from the academy will head to Malaysia to train with their national squad and also participate in an International Series tournament. "I think by next year he'd be focusing more on senior events and the GP tournaments in the national circuit are quite strong."
"That tournament (Senior Nationals) gave me a kind of confidence I've never had before"
Peeling himself away from the surroundings to get into match mode, Lakshya is wonderfully deceptive in his selection of shots, occasionally slowing opponents down before sending them scampering across the court. Better footwork, greater speed and, most crucially, improved core strength are the areas of focus, says Vimal. "He has a slightly different style as opposed to our current crop of senior Indian players, I feel. It's more a mix of aggression and the typical Indian style of deception." Additionally, playing a good amount of doubles through his junior years has helped Lakshya sharpen his singles skills apart from the gainful addition of quick hands, reflexes, defense and alertness on court.
"At the senior level, everyone will retrieve everything that you throw their way." Lakshya says, "So that's an area I need to improve. To play a 30-40 stroke rally consistently without making mistakes and keep the shuttle in the court and also work on attacking play and drop shots. In terms of fitness too I have a long way to go when I look at players like Kidambi Srikanth and the other Indian players. I have to be able to beat all of them in the next couple of years."
Former Indian player Sayyali Gokhali, who trains juniors at the academy, has seen Lakshya grow from an eight-year-old who'd bawl on court after every defeat, into a 15-year-old with a hint of facial hair and a steely might. "What sets him apart is being a fast learner and also maturity beyond his years. Even in tricky match situations Lakshya is calm and can think on his feet," she says.
Lakshya and Sayyali have worked out a way to keep him motivated during low points in a match. "I call out his strengths as pep talk - that he's got his serve going or his defense is steady, in adverse match situations. From his body language - shoulders drooping, eyes downcast I'd know it's time to bring it on. It works well too."
On Thursday though, he needed none of it. Wrapping up an effortless win in his U-19 opener against Ishaan Bhatnagar in under 20 minutes, he ducks out of the nearest exit.
Multiple time zones away, in Sydney, four Indians made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open Super Series on Thursday. This just days after Kidambi Srikanth won the third Superseries title this year (PV Sindhu and Sai Praneeth won the India Open and Singapore Open respectively) for India in Indonesia. With Lakshya shining the light, the future of the sport in the country, much like its present, seems luminous, according to former national champion and coach Sanjay Sharma.
"In two years time I see him not just standing shoulder to shoulder with the top senior players, but also beating them. There are no loopholes in his game and if he can break into the top 50 within the next couple of years, I think it would put him way ahead of his competition."
At 15, to stay away from home, maintain a disciplined diet, wake up early for sapping on-court and gym sessions everyday can be far from fulfilling for the average teen. But Lakshya is no regular kid. Though he admits to an occasional sense of ennui, it's not enough to overpower his will to keep the shuttle in play. "It does get monotonous at times and I think 'I shouldn't be doing this anymore' but I tell myself to keep going. There's no time to stop."