Lakshya Sen shines as future stars light up Nagpur

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Before a lunging PV Sindhu and an attentive Kidambi Srikanth stepped on to the court from the posters that clothed Nagpur's under-construction Metro rail pillars, it was the juniors' final call to make some noise.

The stands hung over eight courts that buzzed with action at the air-conditioned Mankapur Indoor Sports Stadium, the sound of whipping forehands blending into the shrill shrieks of celebration and the chair umpires' staid observation of proceedings overlapping with an animated announcer's summation.

A lot was happening and the weekend crowds, switching allegiances between courts and players with little guilt, found it hard to keep up. They had some reason to stay back a little longer on Sunday evening with two of the most promising Indian junior players -- one accomplished in rankings and touted as the next big Indian singles name, the other dawdling at the rear end of the 400s, but both holding the hope of a major breakthrough, going up against each other.

Eventually, it was junior World No. 3 Lakshya Sen who prevailed over stablemate Meiraba Luwang 21-13, 12-21, 21-13 for a passage into the pre-quarterfinals of the senior badminton nationals, a much-forgotten annual domestic event which received a cortisone shot of revival this edition with a ten-fold prize purse and a galaxy of star names. The top names will hold court from Monday, with a direct entry into the last-16 stage.

Sparring partners at the Prakash Padukone academy in Bengaluru with an informed understanding of each other's games and failings, Lakshya and Meiraba split the first ten points before Lakshya opened up a 14-10 lead, riding on relentless attacks to Meiraba's backhand.

While Lakshya, 16, who became only the third Indian to rise to World No. 1 in junior rankings in 2016, has had big wins in a bunch -- Wimbledon U-19, Swiss Open junior, Aros U-15 Cup in Denmark and the Bulgaria Open International Series, among others, Meiraba, younger to him by two years, had finished with a triple-crown in his first international tournament appearance in Israel four years ago.

Meiraba's father Romesh Luwang, a badminton coach by profession, sat in the courtside holding up clenched fists, goading him on a fightback. The young, wristy Manipuri boy prevailed in some tasty rallies in the second game as a visibly edgy Lakshya stared at the empty plastic chair at his end of the court waiting for his elder brother Chirag to wrap up his match at an adjacent court and join him. "After a few points, I could sense he (Meiraba) was hitting to my body. He would play one or two shots to the side and then suddenly at me, that's how he got a couple of points or I could have finished the match in the second game," Lakshya said.

By the third game, Lakshya was just where he'd begun -- with accelerated jump smashes and the down-the-lines, mixing pace, power and variety -- tiring out Meiraba, who was responding with a ballooning forehand or a shoddy net clear. "Meiraba has a steady defence, so if I have to go to an out-right position to hit, he'll take it. I have to get under the shuttle and play good net shots for a good opening," said Lakshya.

It helped that the Almora teen, who lost in the quarterfinals of the World Junior Championships last month, had a relatively hassle-free morning with his earlier round opponent Siril Verma withdrawing with a shoulder injury. Meiraba, in contrast. was coming off a long, sapping match and was pulling through on the last reserves of his energy.

"Watching Srikanth makes me believe that Indians can get to the biggest stage and succeed" Meiraba Luwang

Hailing from Manipur, Meiraba took to the sport because he had little other choice, he admitted with an impish grin. Watching his father train a group of children got him interested. The 14-year-old is, in fact, the only international badminton player from the tiny north-eastern state, punch drunk in its love for football and almost reflexively synonymous with Mary Kom. "But things are changing now and badminton is no longer a complete unknown back home", he said. "Many of my friends in Manipur play badminton these days. Not so much as a serious sport but for fun."

Growing up, Meiraba had no idols but later found one in former World No. 1 Lin Dan. Now, there's also inspiration closer home. "Watching Srikanth makes players like us believe that Indians can get to the biggest stage and succeed." Meiraba, whose initial years in the sport were riddled with monetary troubles before non-profit Olympic Gold Quest -- which also supports Lakshya -- noticed his potential and step in with assistance, finished with a bronze in his first-ever senior tournament appearance in Thailand earlier this year.

In his maiden senior nationals showing last year, Lakshya had a valiant run, taking apart top seed HS Prannoy in the quarterfinals before eventually losing to Sourabh Verma and finishing as the youngest finalist in that event. Meiraba, on the other hand, is playing the senior event for the first time.

For juniors like these two, the thrust is on finding the right balance between training and tournaments, as Padukone, who was in the city earlier in the day, pointed out. He sees hope in both his academy trainees and calls out the flaw in a ranking-driven push. "While rankings are important, it's not the only thing," he said. "We expose them to senior tournaments but there are short-term goals and we have a fixed plan for them, so that they are not rushed into playing everything. At the beginning of the year, especially for the very talented ones we make a calendar for the whole 12 months and try to stick to it to as much as possible unless there is some injury or some new tournament. Just because their ranking drops, we don't push them into playing one tournament or another."

For both Lakshya and Meiraba, the plan seems to be working. And this is just a start. Boys will soon be men.