Sparring with lefties, longer rallies: How Lakshya has prepared for Denmark Open

Lakshya Sen was on the upswing before the pandemic brought his momentum to a halt. Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

Over the past week, 19-year-old Lakshya Sen has been thrown into game situations against two left-handed academy mates in Bengaluru. The drill was a mock-up for his Denmark Open first-round opponent and France's youngest-ever national champion, 17-year-old Christo Popov.

Badminton will restart after a seven-month hiatus with the Super 750 tournament next week in the idyllic Danish town of Odense. The October 13-18 event has already weathered a slew of withdrawals, primarily by Asian players. Earlier this week, 15 Japanese players including men's singles World No. 1 Kento Momota, pulled out. It was followed by Indians Saina Nehwal and husband Parupalli Kashyap joining PV Sindhu, women's doubles pair N Sikki Reddy and Ashwini Ponnappa, and men's doubles duo of Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy, in skipping the tournament. Only four Indian players -- Kidambi Srikanth, Subhankar Dey, Ajay Jayaram and Lakshya -- now remain in the draw.

Before the pandemic-enforced break, World No. 27 Lakshya was on the upswing. He won five titles between September and December 2019, made his All England debut in March this year and was the only Indian male singles player to reach the second round. He then watched his freshman year on the senior circuit being brutally disrupted. "For someone like Lakshya, very young and getting those results in back-to-back tournaments, the break didn't come at a good time," coach Vimal Kumar says.

"It was definitely a setback. At this stage of the career, tournament opportunities are important. Most countries in Europe and Asia, barring India, have resumed domestic competitions, so their players have gained some sort of match practice. That's a disadvantage Lakshya may face. But he's desperate to get back on tour and play. That's a good sign."

Lakshya, who plays a fast, attacking style, was put through matches every day for the past few weeks at the Prakash Padukone Academy -- Intra-academy league matches, singles, two vs one, and sufficient sparring against left-handers Ansal Yadav and Shivam Sharma to set him up for 2019 European Championship silver medallist Popov, against whom he has a 3-1 record. If Lakshya gets past his first-round hurdle, he will face Danish veteran Hans-Kristian Vittinghus or World No. 11 Kanta Tsuneyama of Japan.

"Physically, Lakshya is in good shape. He's been working on strength training and speed work. The main thing is quality matches." Vimal Kumar

Lakshya's recent training sessions have been tailored around embracing the challenge of longer rallies and strengthening his staying power. Ordinarily, Lakshya has a habit of hurrying through points and holds a dislike for attrition battles, the latter a staple of top-flight badminton.

"My body feels good," Lakshya says, "I think I'm a lot fitter now than I was at the start of this year. I've been training for five months but only when I'm in a high-pressure match situation can I know how much progress I've made. I'm just excited to be playing again."

Lakshya, along with his father -- also a coach at the academy -- and physio, left for Denmark on Thursday. In keeping with tournament guidelines, they got their PCR tests for Covid-19 done three days before departure, which returned negative. On arrival in Odense, they will be tested again at their hotel, and will be allowed to leave their rooms only once their results come in. It could take up to 24 hours. A second test is likely to be conducted by BWF midway through the tournament, latest by October 15. During the event, to minimise human contact, shuttlecock dispensers at each end of the court will be used instead of the service judge handing players a change of shuttlecocks.

After his outing at the Denmark Open, Lakshya has another tournament to go to -- the SaarLorLux Open Super 100 (October 27-November 1) in Germany, where he's the defending champion. In the intervening week between the tournaments, his Danish club, Aarhus, has offered him a couple of matches in the league. He also has an invitation from the French badminton federation to train at their national center after he's run through both his tournaments.

A Target Olympic Podium scheme (TOPS) athlete, Lakshya's tournament and travel expenses, along with those of his physio as well as his father who'll double up as coach, are being paid for by the Sports Authority of India. The funds sanctioned amount to roughly Rs. 14 lakhs (~US$19,150). Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), the not-for-profit program that has been supporting the young player since his pre-teen days, was on standby, ready to step in if SAI funds didn't come in time for this trip.

"Physically," Vimal says, "Lakshya is in good shape. He's been working on his strength training and speed work. We also bought a few tubes of Victor Shuttles, which are likely to be used at the Denmark Open, for him to train. The main thing is quality matches. He has to get going in the initial rounds. It's good his father is accompanying him. At his age, sometimes you need a little push.

"I've been training for five months but only when I'm in a high-pressure match situation can I know how much progress I've made." Lakshya Sen

It's also the first time he has a physio travelling with him. It's a long trip, so we thought it would be necessary. I've asked him not to worry too much about what's going to happen at the matches and just have fun."

Lakshya might also want to put into use another piece of advice offered by coach Vimal -- to optimise the training and competition opportunities that Europe can offer. "He doesn't need to hurry back to India," says Vimal. "Here, he'll be quarantined for at least a week and there aren't any national competitions happening soon anyway."

It's one that holds value both on and off court for the fast-rising star on the Indian singles horizon. Don't rush, savour your chance.