It must not be easy being Lakshya Sen, especially when you have, recently, won a world championship medal, and the hopes of a few million Indian badminton supporters rest on your shoulders. Lakshya has managed to establish himself as India's prime hope in any competition he participates in.
In the men's singles, as of today, he is perhaps India's best bet, ahead of even the former World No.1 Kidambi Srikanth. But, beating the pressure, he has been successfully delivering the goods so far.
No.11 in the world now, the shuttler from Almora finished third, twice in the last four tournaments, while ending up runners-up at German Open, and winning the Indian Open. Consistency has become his middle name, and in the last few months, beyond any doubt, is the most improved player on the circuit. All this, for his coach, Vimal Kumar, doesn't come as a big surprise since the talent was always there, and Lakshya isn't the one to take a lot of pressure anyway.
"It is too early to talk about pressure on him. For now, we just want to let him play and focus on the game. I don't think he would have ever thought about it..we don't think that way either. Right now the priority is to play tournaments, and do the best that we can; he is just at the start of his career, so it is not the way to look at things. The reason I say this is, at the end of the day, badminton is a grueling sport, you win some and lose some," coach Vimal told SportsCafe.
The German Open was a classic example where the 20-year-old held his nerve and did not let pressure dictate terms, in the semifinal against Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, and beat him for the very first time. This, despite trailing in the third game, 9-16. Something about his body language, told coach Vimal, that it was his ward's day. In fact, it wasn't just that particular game that instilled that kind of confidence in the coach, but his overall approach towards the game that changed drastically after training with Axelsen in Dubai for a couple of weeks. Such was the impact of spending time with the Danish player, that Lakshya picked up a few things from there and implemented them in his game.
Perhaps the biggest game-changer could be, as Vimal points out, Lakshya travelling alone to competitions without a coach, just like Axelsen, which seemed to have worked well for the youngster; something that started in Almere, where he finished second, continued in Odense and Paris, and later in the Indonesia leg too. He did lose to Axelsen during that time twice, and once to Kento Momota, but clearly managed to learn a lot with those defeats too.
Vimal elaborates, "The biggest change, if I had to point out one, would be the time he spent training with Axelsen in Dubai. A couple of weeks spent there was an eye-opener for him. He would do a lot of his sessions alone, right from the planning to the execution. There was an immense focus that he showed. This is what appealed to him. So when he went for the European leg, he was on his own, without any coach, for the two-month-long circuit. He had no support of any kind there. He played most of the matches with his own thinking, of course, a little bit of advising was there, but on the court, he implemented his own plans.
"Since he was doing all this alone, he learned a lot, and one of the biggest takeaways has to be the patience that has come in his game and handling different situations. Earlier, he used to hate playing against defensive players, but now he is better equipped to play them. In Indonesia, he defended well, kept the shuttle in play, and when it mattered, went for the attack. I think all this has contributed to his all-around development. Even when we are exchanging messages, I can see he is thinking better."
With the results going his way, for now, there is a possibility that Lakshya could be thinking too far ahead, just like any other youngster his age, but this is where the role of Vimal becomes crucial. The latter has to ensure that none of this happens, and staying in the present becomes Lakshya's second nature, which to be fair to him, he has done exactly that.
"With Lakshya, we have a simple motto, don't look too far ahead. Don't think about the Olympics already, and remain in the present. Every tournament he participates in is important. Moreover, you cannot predict in advance, when a player will peak, and what will happen at a certain event. All I can say is we have planned for this year, and that is our priority. So if we have given him 10 tournaments to play in a year, then he really knows which are the important ones. Emphasis is also on having three-month targets, after which review the performance and lay down a new plan."
While Vimal feels that his ward is more than capable of handling these things, the coach wants Lakshya to keep focussing only on getting fitter. Not that he isn't superemely fit now, but it is a constant process that an athlete needs to undergo. Recovery too is a big part of fitness, and overall it goes beyond stretching muscles and lifting a few weights. Vimal is very clear, only fitness will define his longevity.
"So far Lakshya has worked on his strengths, as far as fitness is concerned. Of course, there is no limit as to what you can achieve with your fitness, and that is what is required in our sport. I think day by day he is also understanding his body better, which involves a recovery process after matches as well. It is a never-ending process, simply put.
"All I expect him to do is to get stronger, and fitter, while the other aspects of his game, he is working well. He is slightly injury-prone as compared to other players, as he dives around on the court a bit. To be able to do that, you need to be very strong. And he is at an age where it would be unfair to ask him to do that on the court, and moreover, it works for him," Vimal concluded.