Sometimes, Lakshya Sen can make us forget that he's just twenty. A thing with early success. It tends to rob those around a young star of perspective.
Lakshya had his stunning run through the All England draw halted in the final by reigning Olympic champion and world No 1 Viktor Axelsen, 21-10, 21-15. He'll still go into history books as the youngest-ever Indian in the final of this event, and first man in over two decades.
Sunday was about Axelsen playing a game strong in the attack, patient through extended rallies and staying inside the lines for the greater part. "He (Axelsen) was just too solid for me to put the shuttle down," Lakshya told BWF later.
Lakshya walked into the court having abandoned the calm of his white shirt from earlier rounds for the chaos of neon. Axelsen won the toss and chose the slower end of the court. The plan was evident - push Lakshya away from the net and pin him to the back of the court.
Lakshya was playing with the drift, risking the possibility of his lifts and clears going long. Strengthening play from the back court is a work in progress for him. He doesn't have the sort of turbo power that Axelsen or his semifinal opponent Lee Zii Jia have to play too many shots from the backline. There were passages of play in his semifinal too where Lakshya was having trouble landing the blows from the back of the court. But Zii Jia was a touch reckless with the lines and so less effective, while Axelsen was precise. To prop up a power game from behind, Lakshya's legs, trunk and shoulders need more strengthening.
What worked well for Axelsen was finding the perfect length on his shots - like the winners he drilled early and the backhand lift that landed softly, smack on the backline to open up a 4-0 lead. Axelsen controlled the exchanges, sending Lakshya chasing after the shuttle into his deep forehand pocket. Lakshya stayed in the rallies, even the insane 61-shot rally that took Axelsen to 9-2; Lakshya dropped to his knees mid-rally for a return on his forehand side, got the shuttle over, picked up three more, one with an on-the-run backhand followed by a sprint to the opposite end for two more on the forehand side. Lakshya had barely swiveled his torso to face the next return, when Axelsen thundered a down-the-line winner, yet again into the forehand side. It was a snapshot of the story of the match - Lakshya throwing in what he had and Axelsen doing next-level, Olympic champion stuff.
Axelsen's defense was sturdy on the night, and he remained unfazed even though Lakshya was getting back a fairly high number of shuttles. Typically it can frustrate Axelsen but on Sunday he was a lot more patient, keeping his head and staying in cool charge of proceedings. He bossed Lakshya around the court, sending him scurrying to both ends and corners. Axelsen made no mistake in neutralising the net as a battlefront and Lakshya was stripped of his pet theatre for clever dribbles and tricks.
Midway through the second game, at 12-9, it briefly looked like Lakshya was putting together some sort of comeback, like he typically does. But the three points that followed - a howler of a review call for a clear wide, a sideline spray and a lift to the backline that landed long, the latter two being drawn out by Axelsen's booming smashes, opened up a six-point lead for the Dane and put a lid on Lakshya's chances.
At 28, Axelsen - who has been in Olympic and World Championships finals and was playing his fourth All England title match - the big occasion is familiar turf. For Lakshya, in his first final of this stature, the occasion and hordes of fans in the stands could have triggered a few nerves. It's only natural to feel the pressure. The expectations of the young player from Almora, a small town in Uttarakhand, have grown with every match, as have his boundless ambitions.
While his defense was dogged, it wasn't unbreachable; Axelsen was able to carve the angles and produce the winners. Lakshya doesn't have too many glaring weaknesses in his game. He'll need to sandpaper his defense and work on building more strength. There is of course no fast-forward button to skipping a debut final and finding oneself with the composure of a veteran.
Axelsen was 26 when he won his first All England title two years ago. Lakshya's mentor and India's first-ever champion Prakash Padukone was 25. Pullela Gopichand, who arrived a winner on the stage two decades after that, was 27. Lakshya should know that his good years are ahead of him and his time will come.
Perhaps a few young Indian boys and girls somewhere in the quiet hills or bustling towns of the country looked up at the TV from their home-work to catch a few glimpses of a lunging-retrieving-never-giving-up Lakshya on Sunday night. Some others may have watched on phone screens in sweaty dorm rooms. A few fires may have been stoked in pre-teen minds. Of how far ambition and hard yards can carry one even from the most geographically unlikely addresses. That may be a winner.