Lakshya Sen was unaware that he was making history until after he had gone ahead and done it. His 21-19, 21-18 victory over reigning world junior champion Kunlavut Vitidsarn in the final of the Asian Junior Badminton Championships meant he was the first Indian man in 53 years to have held the continental title. It's put him in elite company - other winners include Olympic champions Taufik Hidayat (1997), Lin Dan (2000) and Chen Long (2007). "I had no idea about any of that," he says.
Even if he's not nearly in their league yet, Sen has long been talked up as one of the brightest prospects in Indian men's singles. This win over the best of his compatriots in Asia will only add to that chatter. His talent was undeniable -- a couple of years ago at 15 he became the youngest player to make the final of the National Championships and he's been world no. 1 in the juniors in the past.
But Sen hasn't always lived up to that potential before. Despite being the second seed at the 2017 World Junior Championships, he fell in the quarterfinals. He was the top seed at the Asian Junior Championships, where he lost in the fourth round. The perception was that when the going got tough, Sen folded.
This year he hasn't been in strong form. To begin with, he was carrying a couple of injuries - growing pains, as coach Vimal Kumar puts it. A niggle in his hitting shoulder had cost him two months at the very start of the year. And recurring pain in his shins prevented him even from running outside the court. "We had a two-week national camp in Bangalore for the Asian Junior Championships and Lakshya only attended for three days at the end. So it really would have been unfair to expect that he would just go on to win the title," explains Kumar.
That's not the mindset Sen had gone into the tournament with though. "I go into each match thinking I will win it. I went to the tournament thinking I would win," he says. That confidence, Sen maintains, has always been by his side, even when he faced surprise defeats and injuries. What has changed though is Sen's court ability. "I've lost in the past simply because I was not fit and strong enough to be able to play at a high level. As I've grown older I've got stronger physically. In the time where I couldn't play because I was injured, I've been working on improving my stamina and strength," he says.
"He's always had the strokes and touch. But because he's grown a couple of inches over the last year (Sen currently stands at 5'10"), his attack is becoming more potent. When he smashes, there is a lot more power behind it now. And when he defends, he doesn't just block the shuttle but hits cross-net shots and cross lifts too, " says Kumar.
A glimpse of that evolution was made apparent at the New Zealand Open in May this year when he took the opening game off Lin Dan, troubling him with a whiplash-like smash before eventually going down in three. "That was a huge boost for me because, I knew I could compete with the best players in the world. I had the game," recalls Sen.
Sen has been able to learn from those matches too. "One mistake he was making earlier was he would rush his shots when he was getting under pressure. But he wasn't doing that at the Asian Championships," says Kumar. What stood out for Kumar in the final was how Sen was able to recover from potentially tricky situations - he was down 18-19 in the opening game and 14-17 in the second.
"He showed a cool head in these moments. After he recovered from 14-17 down to lead 19-18, the Thai player won a point after a very long rally. It could have been the turning point of that game. But Lakshya made sure to stretch that point. He stayed on the ground instead of just getting up and playing the next point. He showed a bit of gamesmanship but that was crucial at that stage. These are tactical plays he has learned from his losses," says Kumar.
Despite the win, neither coach nor player are getting ahead of themselves. "This is an important win for Lakshya. It will give him the confidence for his next few tournaments but there are areas where he has to get better. He is still not strong enough to really compete consistently at an elite level. He can definitely add a lot more muscle to his frame. As he gets more experience he will learn how to use his power," says Kumar.
Sen admits as much. "I'm happy about the win but I don't want to be too excited. When I called my family after the win, they were perhaps even happier than me. But I can't be like that. This is still a junior title. You cannot compare it to the senior level. It is a good win but it is only the starting for me," says Sen.