Lakshya Sen stood with open arms in the empty stadium, taking in the applause from a small but zealous group of tournament staff and personnel. He'd battled from a game down against Ng Tze Yong, looked at as the next-best-in-line in Malaysia after All England champion Lee Zii Jia, for a 19-21, 21-16, 21-12 win. Sen made his first Super 500 final in his India Open debut, another feather in the cap of the 20-year-old.
"For me, the way I see myself hasn't changed," the 20 year-old told ESPN, "Before big matches, telling myself that I have nothing to lose, like I've been doing in earlier years, is still my favorite way to keep calm."
In a field that dwindled in numbers as the week wore on, with each round of RT-PCR results claiming top seeds and the unheralded alike, staying in contention called for a good measure of luck. Lakshya came off a gritty quarterfinal against senior Indian HS Prannoy and Tze Yong was supposed to be a tricky last-four opponent with a cross smash that can cause some damage. He'd clinched three International Challenge titles - Polish, Scottish and Belgian. Tze Yong had come into his own last year, putting Jonathan Christie in a spot of bother at the Thomas Cup.
Sunday will count as a big match in Lakshya's young senior career. To get there, though, he had to put out a few early fires in his semifinal against rising Malaysian star, Tze Yong.
Starting with flat exchanges early on, the Malaysian put a few cross court, his deceptive wrists sending couple of shuttles kissing the corners. A reverse half smash had the Indian jump on a 10-6 lead but errors crept in and he fell behind quick. He stopped short of whacking his racket on to the court in anger when Tze Yong raced away with the first game.
Tze Yong continued to force Lakshya into errors and the Indian was caught unawares by a smash that rocketed between his feet, as he stood near the back of the court to enter the midgame break with a two-point deficit. Unlike in the first, Lakshya's pushes began to find the backline in the second. Tze Yong plonked a clever drop-shot to narrow in, 17-15 but threw away serve with a poor net lift in the next point.
What the Malaysian owned in skill, he lacked in experience. Ahead of the India Open he was quoted as saying by media back home that he 'didn't know what to expect' at a Super 500. Lakshya in contrast has shoveled in plenty of Tour level exposure over the past year.
He turned up at 10 tournaments in 12 months. It's pickled him in patience and taught him the value of changing up speed.
He took his attacking play up a few notches in the third, pushing the pace, thwarting the Malaysian's rushes and attempted kills and his whiplash downward steep smashes ringing through the stands. Tze Yong inched close 5-7 when the Indian sprayed one into the tramlines. But he made quick amends, taking the next two points off assaults on the Malaysian's backhand side. Tze Yong's withering cross courts were still ticking in fits and starts in the third. Like the one he launched for the scores to read 8-15. But they weren't frequent enough to put Lakshya in a spot of bother. Riding on the back of some dogged defense, he closed out the final run of points with little trouble.
Vimal Kumar, Indian head coach at the Padukone academy where Lakshya trains, sat up on Friday night skimming through snatches of the Malaysian's Scottish Open final. "The shuttles, I noticed, were extremely slow," Vimal said after the match, "The good thing was Lakshya was hitting well, really belting them down. He managed to keep a good length and his pushes to the back of the court made a big difference."
Lakshya has now traveled to the business end of the week, his first Super 500 final and awaiting him is a well-rested, barely tested, new world champion and sparring buddy Loh Kean Yew. The Malaysia born-Singaporean carries a robust defence that lends heft to his attack and he's quick to get under the shuttle. He's fleet footed, squatting to trick the centre of gravity and barely a month into being referred to as World champion is soaring in confidence.
"I think both of us are playing well," Lakshya said after his semifinal, economical in reverence of his fancied opponent. Lakshya and Loh have faced each other four times in Tour events so far - the results split evenly. They both were among the group of young players invited by Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen for sparring sessions in Dubai. Lakshya flew over for one such spell last year, while Loh followed up his World Championship win with another training stint alongside the Dane.
"For most players, perhaps across sport, immediately after a really big win, you tend to dip a bit. Your hunger drops. You can even lose some motivation," Vimal notes, "With Loh I don't think that's happened. He seems relaxed, wanting to train more, play more, and win more."
Lakshya knows it well enough - even if not thick buddies, there's familiarity between them from their sparring sessions on court and a few odd rounds of golf off it.
Loh has already conquered the World. He has an India Open annex in his line of sight now. On the other side of the court on Sunday, the Indian on his India Open debut would want it more badly.