When asked whom he'd dread facing in the tournament a few days ago, Lakshya Sen shrugged his shoulders, broke into a half-smile and said, "I'd be Ok with any opponent." What could come across as mild irreverence is actually is sense of calm, self-assuredness and maturity way beyond his years. Certainly not virtues you'd associate with a 16-something boy. On Tuesday, up against world No 2 Kidambi Srikanth, whom he played for the first time ever, in the semifinals of the senior badminton nationals, Lakshya was no starry-eyed teen.
It was more like the challenger-in-waiting going against the crown prince.
In the first game, the former world junior No 1 seemed a touch tentative going for drops or half-smashes instead of full-throttle smashes. Srikanth too offered him little room to express himself, playing shallow lifts before eventually going on to prevail 21-16, 21-18.
A peek into their early years and it's hard to miss some common strands running through their lives - both following an older sibling into the sport, playing some doubles and not exactly fitness fanatics. While Srikanth has long pushed past the latter barrier, Lakshya admits he needs to add strength and conditioning for his body to weather big days like these.
"I knew all along that Srikanth wasn't going to give me any easy points. So I tried to keep the shuttle in as much as I could and didn't put too much pressure on myself," Lakshya reflected later. "Just the way Srikanth dribbles and the power in his smashes I felt was great. There's a lot I need to work on -- my drops, quick smashes and my rally finishes."
For someone like Lakshya who's far from a talker, travelling coaches stationed at courtside often have to do more than strategize and offer suggestions. They have to dip into mind-reading too and the water breaks between games can often be challenging for them. "We have to keep asking him what's going on in his mind or what assistance he needs," says Sagar Chopda, coach at the Prakash Padukone academy in Bengaluru where Lakshya trains and who's accompanying him in Nagpur. "His usual response is, 'I'm OK bhaiyya (big brother).' That makes it tricky for us. We don't know what to tell him after that." He made an exception on Tuesday. Walking up to Sagar during the second game break Lakshya innocently queried," Bhaiya, main check kar raha hoon kya?" (is it more like I'm checking my strokes). Heeding his coach's word to not hold himself back but play smashes to full power Lakshya reeled off three points in a row.
Starting out as a defensive player, Lakshya re-moulded his game around more attacking play over the past few years. On Tuesday he seemed to be relishing the full-length dives on court and recovering almost immediately to pick the next shuttle on most occasions. He was also aided by a measure of luck in getting to the business end of the tournament with two walkovers, the last one coming in the quarterfinals against an injured Ajay Jayaram when he was up 10-5.
The Almora boy, who Chopda says, can sleep 'anywhere, any time and for any amount of time, is not intimidated by the reputation of his opponents. "He's the kind of boy who's always at peace. He's doesn't overthink situations and isn't scared of competition. In fact he looks forward to matches with the big guys. He knows it's a chance he won't get too often at this stage of his career." Tuesday was a big stage for Lakshya, who admits he'd go back richer in learning and maybe draw some joy from having troubled one of the world's best men's singles players, even if it was for a few fleeting points.
"For me it's a great experience," says Lakshya addressing a swarm of journalists," Before today I'd only seen Srikanth play on TV."