I don't care if my opponent is 18 or 28: Junior world No 1 Lakshya Sen is ready for the big stage

June 01, 2017      Announcements

Lakshya Sen, 15, is walking off the court after a three-hour-long training session at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bengaluru. He heads straight to his chair on the sidelines, on which his kit bag and water bottle is kept. Seated on the chair next to his is Padukone himself. Together with Sen's coach and academy co-founder Vimal Kumar, Padukone proceeds to engage the teenager in some technical talk about his game.

That's not to say Padukone does not watch the training sessions of other pupils at his academy, but it is quite apparent that Sen is under more scrutiny than the others. He is, after all, the current junior world No 1 in badminton and one of the brightest prospects coming out of Padukone's stable. They talk to the teenager about not just his game, but also about his body language and the way he walks on the court when the shuttle is not in play.

Sen is not the first Indian to be a junior world No 1. Aditya Joshi and Siril Verma had also reached the summit in 2014 and 2016 respectively. So what makes Sen so special? "I think what differentiates Lakshya from other players is that he is calm and composed in any match situation," said Sayali Gokhale, a former national champion who is currently coaching at the academy and travels with Sen to all his tournaments.

"He is able to think differently at crucial times and produce that kind of game even under pressure," she added. "He has all the other qualities required of an athlete – he is sincere, hard-working and disciplined – but along with that he has a good presence of mind. He picks things up faster."

Sen first hit the headlines three years ago when, as a 13-year-old, he won the Wimbledon Under-19 tournament. He has won the Under-15 and Under-17 national championships, before becoming the youngest player to reach the final of the senior nationals in February this year, where he lost Sourabh Verma, who is nine years older than him. It capped a memorable week for the teenager, who had also become the world's top-ranked junior player days ago.

No longer a junior

Sen has since won a bronze at the Junior Dutch Open and a silver at the Junior German Open this year. However, the boy who will just turn 16 in August plans to play more seniors tournaments and fewer juniors in the future. "This year, I will be playing only two juniors tournaments – the Asian Championships and the World Championships," he told Scroll.inafter his training session. "Other than that I will play all the Challenge and Series tournaments in seniors."

While some might think he is still too young to play in the seniors, for Sen it is a way to get used to players of various ages, heights, and playing styles, which he said would help him in the future. Tall or short, young or old, Sen relishes the opportunity to take on anyone in the world. He isn't intimidated by players twice his age. "While I am playing my opponent, it doesn't really matter whether he is 18 or 28," he said. "I play to win. It doesn't matter how old he is. I have played against some guys in their thirties. I won against some, lost against some."

The above statements might sound like they are coming from a brash and outspoken youngster who knows how good he is, and wants everyone to know it. But Sen is, in fact, the exact opposite. At least that's how he comes across – a shy, quiet and introverted teenager. Perhaps that's just in the public eye, or in front of the media, in which he has only recently started attracting attention. That's not to say he does not like the attention.

"Everyone likes it," he said, with a smile. "When people come and ask for photos to be taken with me, I like that." Has he signed an autograph? "Yes, four or five." But fame often comes as a double-edged sword, and Sen is well aware of it. "[The attention] also gives me some pressure that I have to do well and not lose," he said.

Vimal Kumar (left) and Sayali Gokhale (right) train with Lakshya Sen (Image credit: Jaideep Vaidya)

Hailing from the hilly Almora district of Uttarakhand, Sen started playing badminton when he was as young as six years old. It helped that his father, DK Sen, is still a badminton coach at the Sports Authority of India's campus in Almora. "When I was nine, I went for an Under-10 tournament in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh," Lakshya said. "I won that tournament and that's when I thought that I can excel in this game."

Sen was spotted by Vimal Kumar while he was playing an Under-15 tournament in Bengaluru as a 10-year-old. Kumar immediately approached Sen's father and asked him to enrol his son at the Padukone academy. Since then, Bengaluru has been his home. He has lived away from his parents for the last six years, but has his 18-year-old brother Chirag Sen, who also trains at the academy, for company.

Sen trains for six days a week, getting only Sundays to catch up on his other interests such as watching movies, going to the mall with friends, and playing laser tag. A regular day for Sen has him waking up at 5.15 in the morning and going off to Bengaluru's Kanteerava Stadium for agility training at 6 am. After that, he trains on court for three hours, followed by a two-hour gym session in the afternoon, or vice versa.

Focus on strength

"Nowadays, I am focussing more on my strength, so I have more of gym sessions than court," he said. "Vimal Sir has decided to cut down on court sessions and focus more on gym. I am still growing, and I feel I need a little more strength and stamina to match the higher-level players. There, everyone is fit and has a big smash, good leg strength. I am focussing on becoming strong. The game part will take care of itself."

Sen's technical skills will never desert him even if he focuses on strength for a long period, according to Kumar. "It's like learning to ride a cycle – it will always remain with you," he said. "When you are young and have the skills to excel at the highest level, all you then need is for your physical parameters to go up. With Lakshya, we have seen that he's beating good players, but when he plays one or two matches he gets tired. Of course, he is only 16 and it is tough for us to expect him to beat those big guys, but he is showing promise."

Sen has also suddenly shot up in height. He has gained three inches in the last year, and currently stands at around 5' 10". He is now taller than his elder brother by a couple of inches. "Suddenly, he has become very tall, but he still lacks the strength," Kumar said. "At this age, all they want to do is play international tournaments and improve their ranking. We have told him to continue playing tournaments, but the priority has to be improving his strength and endurance."

Sen's current plan is to play two or three tournaments in a row, then come back to Bengaluru for a month for rest and training, then get back on the circuit, and so on. His next challenge is at the Badminton Asia Junior Championship in July, where he is one of the favourites to win a medal in the boys' singles event. Asked if he is already targeting a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Sen said his long-term aim for now is to get into the world's top 50 in men's singles in the next couple of years. His current rank is 174. By playing more and more senior tournaments, his ranking is bound to increase and, with his talent, it won't be surprising if he breaks into the top 100 by the end of this year.