When the semifinal draws were out on Friday evening, the running gag within Lakshya Sen's team over the Indian youngster's penchant for rarefied opponents was brought back to life. Over the past eight weeks, Lakshya has played world No 1 & 2 - Viktor Axelsen and Kento Momota five times. He ran the tiring Japanese close in their last meeting, but in his maiden World Tour Finals playoffs against the tall Dane with the wingspan of an albatross, he ran himself aground in 39 minutes, losing 21-13, 21-11.
The reigning Olympic champion, when in an offensive mood, is almost unstoppable. Typically, he sustains pressure on the backline of his opponents with lifts and clears and uses his cross-court net shots to force a weak lift, steps to the back of the court for a straight smash and if retrieved, continues with the same thread of attack.
Both players came into the match fairly well-rested since the remaining two members in their group - Rasmus Gemke and Momota, had pulled out. Viktor and Lakshya had only played one match before the semifinals - against each other, earlier in the week, which the Indian had lost.
In Saturday's semifinal, Lakshya ran out of ideas early. He retrieved wildly, parried a couple of body attacks but wasn't taking the pace off the shuttle, or using slower drops enough to frustrate the world No 1. For a player of Axelsen's frame, standing 6"3' tall, and a high center of gravity, defense isn't supposed to be comfortable. He's worked on it in recent years, with his knees bent and feet sufficiently wide apart in a half-crouch to allow for better balance and reach. His smashes, straight and cross court, often caught the Indian, who played with a strapping on his right knee and playing shoulder, off balance.
"It was a really tough match," Lakshya told BWF after the match, "Viktor was very steady in his defense so I couldn't score through him. In the second game, my movements were not good and I was making lots of mistakes. I'm very disappointed but playing semis in a world tour finals has given me a lot of confidence. I have a lot of areas to work on. It's been a pretty long season with 7 tournaments in 8 weeks. I need to let my body recover, get back up and be ready for the World Championships."
What Lakshya didn't win in points or games on Saturday, he did in gasps of disbelief. Trailing 4-14 in the second game, Lakshya threw himself into a full-length dive to catch a drop shot on the forecourt of his backhand side inches off the ground, sent it back, chased the push to the backline from Axelsen and with his back still turned away, drove it from knee-level to the other side.
Axelsen, who wasn't counting on finding the shuttle in his half, could only press his thumb and index finger against his eyelids in a sign of despair. "Lakshya is very talented," the Dane said later, "I respect him a lot and I've been lucky to have him training beside me for a few weeks already. Hopefully, in the future we can practice more together." Lakshya must be counting on those lessons.