Lakshya Sen poses for a picture with his parents at a press conference I ANI
It is all happening in the world of sports. Two stunning developments and some moments of elation. From Europe comes the first stunner with the news of the exit of four-times world champion Italy from this year's Qatar World Cup qualification thanks to a little known North Macedonia. The defeat at home in the crucial playoff match to ensure a berth ended Italy's chances, and for the second successive time, the football giant and reigning Euro champions will not be part of the grand finale. It had missed it four years ago in Russia. The other stunner was the sudden and surprising decision of the world's number one women's tennis player Ashleigh Barty to retire from the sport! The Australian is just 25 and had won the Australian Open for her third Grand Slam title less than two months ago. Perhaps the pressure of being at the top undid her.
However, it is how a 20-year-old handled the pressure and stringent tests to cement his place among the top-notch performers in world badminton that has sent a flush of elation among Indian fans! Indeed we are talking of none other than Lakshya Sen, the new emerging badminton star. The next big name in Indian badminton, Lakshya's rise, is one more compelling reason to believe that the sport in India is flying high like never before. The immediate reason is his show in the recent All England Open Badminton Championship, considered the world's oldest badminton tournament and a coveted event of the BWF World Tour. Like Prakash Nath, the first Indian to make it to the title round way back in 1947, Lakshya made it to the final, getting past two world top ten players. Anders Antonsen (World number 3 and world championship bronze medallist) in the pre-quarterfinal and defending champion Lee Zii Jia (World number 7) in the semi-final. Lakshya may not have won the title like the two other illustrious Indians prior to him, Prakash Padukone (1980) and P. Gopi Chand (2001) but the manner of his making it to the summit around before going down to the world number one and Olympic Champion Viktor Axelson is what caught the imagination of badminton aficionados. He is just 20 years old, the age when the others were just inching ahead! That he won the appreciation of even Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi puts his show in the right perspective.
In the normal circumstances, his loss to Axelson would have been taken for granted, considering Dane's stature, but then, only a week earlier, the Indian had stunned him in the German Open semi-final. So he had in him to do the unexpected, as he had been doing in the last few months with eyeball catching performances, in fact heralding the new year with the Indian Open title in New Delhi. More than anything, what is noteworthy is the strides Lakshya had already made. Back in 1980, when Padukone was the player in focus, the world of badminton adored him, and the respect he earned from players around the world had to be seen. It happened in 1982 in Hyderabad in a Masters event, Padukone was pitted against Indonesian, Icuk Sugiarto (in later years to become a world champion and earn many more achievements) in the final. As a reporter then and one who witnessed this grand contest, what came as a surprise was not just Prakash losing a clinching final but Sugiarto shedding tears after the win! As media men approached the Indonesian after the stupendous final, the young man took time to compose himself for he could not believe the enormity of what he had done, beating one of the greats of the game and what is more the world's best player then! Two decades later, Gopichand emulated the great Padukone at the All England, but what brought Indian badminton as such into focus in recent times has been the performances of the likes of Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu, K Srikanth, H S Prannoy, among others. Indeed Saina, Srikanth and Sindhu had even the honour of being World number one during this phase. Into this rich group now comes the latest star Lakshya. Like Sindhu, world championship winner, Srikanth world championship silver medallist, Lakshya places himself as a World Championship bronze medallist. Indian badminton has never had it so good collectively.
The latest happening in Birmingham brings excitement because Lakshya holds the promise of delivering something more spectacular. He has proved with his performances lately that he could on his day be unstoppable. Like the final of the Indian Open, where he conquered the reigning world champion Loh Kean Yew (Singapore) for his career's first BWF Super 500 title. In the German Open, beside Axelson, Lakshya had got past Olympic bronze medallist Anthony Ginting (Indonesia) on his way to a runner-up finish. But then the unrelenting pressure and the toll on the body can be extreme in a gruelling sport like badminton. Perhaps Lakshya will learn to handle this sooner than later for he knows at the hands of Padukone himself at his Bangalore academy as also the astute Vimal Kumar he can only improve. Indeed it is one of the glorious chapters of Indian badminton that a former Indian great Padukone has successfully brought out a champion talent from his own stable. There is so much more to be heard on this as the days and months go by. Already Sindhu has added to this 'feel-good moment with her latest success in the Swiss Open in Basel, the venue where she had won the World championship earlier. Add to that Prannoy's runner up finish and the good days continue for Indian badminton!