Five days ago, Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar got on a conference call with their brightest pupil, currently ranked 21 in the world - Lakshya Sen. Hours earlier, the 20-year-old had been confirmed as a qualified entrant for this week's World Tour Finals. It was not a tournament they had planned for, more a happy bonus.
The chat, helmed by Padukone, followed a specific theme and called for a shift in goals - Lakshya should no longer look at himself as an underdog who is happy to win a couple of rounds at tournaments. When he enters a tournament, the priority now must be the title.
Lakshya has played nine tournaments so far this year, five of them over the past seven weeks. He has made two quarterfinals, two semifinals, one final and pulled off an upset win over a top-10 player. He's in the top-20 bracket of players, the stakes are higher and coach Vimal concurs that now is the right time for a switch in mindset.
It must begin, he feels, with not giving players higher ranked than himself "too much" respect. "Both Prakash and I have explained to him that he has to take his chances. It's not enough to just play well at big tournaments, he has to begin counting himself as a title contender now. Not just Lakshya, all of us who work with him also have to treat him with that goal in mind," says Vimal, "He played a close match against [Kento] Momota a week ago. He has to start converting these tight score-lines. Of course, [Viktor] Axelsen and Momota are a notch above the rest of the men's singles field but they are not superhuman. What sets them apart is consistency and results, but they too can crack. We saw it happen last week in the manner in which Loh (Kean Yew) beat Momota."
The draw for this week's World Tour Finals is a tough one for Lakshya. His four-member group holds both Momota and Axelsen [and Rasmus Gemke]. Lakshya has faced Momota twice in as many weeks and plays him again now, while he'll be up against Axelsen for the first time since the Denmark Open in October. "When I played Viktor for the first time at the All England last year, I remember feeling overwhelmed," Lakshya tells ESPN from Bali, "I've been playing these big events regularly since, so now it doesn't feel that way anymore. I've been playing the top guys often so I'm more confident now and know what to expect."
With every encounter against the big names, Vimal believes, Lakshya is peeling back the layers in his own game. "He's slowly coming to realize that at the top level of the sport against the top guys, you can't just play an attacking game and hit your way through," Vimal says, "Against Viktor in Denmark he tried it in the second game after a composed first and lost horribly (7-21). You could see he's taken those lessons when he played Momota a week ago, mixing pace, soft touches and smashes. He needs to keep doing it more often and I think he'll be in with a very good chance to pull off an upset." The trouble areas of his recent past - being unsettled when his shots are retrieved and running out of patience in constructing rallies, have seen an improvement but he still needs to work on his strength and endurance to sustain himself in top-flight badminton. He has been on the road since the Dutch Open nine weeks ago and jokes about unwinding during his breaks between tournaments with trashy Hindi movies whose names he can no longer recall.
Lakshya has now spent a pandemic-disrupted year and a half hanging out in the big boys' club. Hunger has replaced awe. "I may look up to some of these guys," says Lakshya, "but when we are on opposite sides of the court, we are equals. I want to win as much as they do."