Prankster to world beater: The transformation of Lakshya Sen

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New Delhi : Vimal Kumar remembers an 8-year-old prankster’s face that could plunge into a puddle of tears when he was caught mid-prank. Lakshya Sen could also cutely pull a frowning face and pretend as if he had nothing to do with whatever unsavoury business had gone on. And then he also bawled when he lost a match. Watching Sen at the All England this week, all these years later, Vimal is still boggled about how liquid steel started coursing through Sen’s veins these last six months.

“Something’s changed totally. He feels like he can get these big wins. It’s some steel, determination that’s suddenly noticeable in him,” Vimal Kumar says of an alloy he helped burnish. “I told him many, many times that ‘When you are on the fringes, you can be dropped anytime. You need to become the best player, so that they come and say we want you to play in the team,” says the Bangalore coach and Sen’s mentor.

It’s not just the Thomas Cup (non)-selection when he missed out after losing a trial, Vimal says. Many more factors contributed to the 20-year old Sen growing up almost overnight. But the young breakthrough star had always abhorred being kept away from the sport.

“I remember Prakash (Padukone) once asked him, ‘Are you homesick?’ And Lakshya said, ‘Yes’. So we told him, ‘We’ll send you home tomorrow.’ He was taken aback and never asked to go home (Almora) again!” Vimal recalls.

At other times when the young trainees at the Prakash Padukone Academy sneaked out to watch movies at the auditorium on the top floor when they were told to sleep by 10 pm, Vimal punished them in other ways. “The best punishment is to take them away from badminton for one week. They never repeat the same mistake. Though he was naughty, he never refused any training. But the few times of indiscipline, I’d quietly tell them, ‘Take a week off.’ That’s it. They hated that,” he recalls with a chuckle. “If they really value their game, they inevitably listen. Lakshya learnt this quickly.”

It’s democratic control over players knowing they are captive to the sport itself. “In Asian badminton, we try to control the players too much. I preferred leaving it to their choice. It has its pluses and minuses,” Vimal concedes.

Yet another feature of Vimal’s coaching which helped the quiet boy from the hills open up to him was when he gave him a free pass to challenge his authority. “I used to tell Saina (Nehwal) too. A coach-ward relationship isn’t just about the game. I’d be fine if you argued with me about something in training you didn’t agree with. Talked back at me or even shouted back at me. I wanted my players to be independent. And though things have not reached a stage where Lakshya has actually screamed back, I’m very proud of the personality he’s developed.”

STAMPS OF GREAT GAMES

An independent, thinking-on-his-feet shuttler Lakshya might’ve grown into, but the nuts and bolts of his game, and some ramparts even, bear imprints of some famous games.

One of the identifiable characteristics of Padukone Academy trainees, one they consciously work on, are the net-tumbles. “It’s the academy’s ethos because Prakash was very good at the net, he dominated there and used it as a strength,” Vimal says. “Lakshya was obsessed with the smash and the jumps watching (Lee) Chong Wei and Taufik (Hidayat) videos. But we insisted that he work on his net game if he wants to be good at singles. Lakshya was systematically coached in that area.”

Against Lee Jii Zia in the semis at Birmingham, it was that one extra net dribble that most frustrated the Malaysian. “It’s the counter-dribble actually I’m most proud of,” Vimal says. The option is always between lifting the shuttle which is easy, or stay with the dribble at the net. Most choose to lift, but Sen runs with the confidence that he can stay invested in the tight spun dribbles and then reap the benefits of opponents’ impatience.