Dutch Open 2019: Lakshya Sen takes first step towards becoming next 'Great Indian Hope' with maiden World Tour title

Shirish Nadkarni

Although it had appeared inevitable for over a year, the actual consummation took a little longer than expected. Eighteen-year -old Lakshya Sen's first World Tour title, the Dutch Open Super 100 championship at Almere in The Netherlands, on Sunday at the expense of Japan's Yusuke Onodera by a 15-21, 14-21, 21-15 scoreline in three minutes over the hour mark.

By all accounts, the 24-year-old Onodera, who occupies the 160th rung of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, can basically be considered a "journeyman" on the tour, scrapping his way through Challenger-level tournaments and hoping for a berth in the qualifiers of the relatively lowly Super 100 tournaments in the elite category of international badminton competitions.

The Japanese shuttler, who turned out to be one of three qualifiers to bag a semi-final spot in the Dutch Open (the odd man out in the last four being the 72nd ranked Lakshya), had fought his way through a solitary qualifying round, and then taken in his stride the top seed of the men's singles, India's 17th ranked Sameer Verma, in the third round by a 21-18, 19-21, 21-14 verdict.

After a stroll in the park in the quarter-finals against qualifier Daniel Nikolov, the tireless Onodera lowered the colours of one of the world's top juniors, Li Shifeng of China, in the penultimate reckoning.

Shifeng, it will be remembered, had beaten Lakshya at 21-15, 21-19 in the final of the boys' singles at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires last year. However, in the World Junior Championships at Markham, Canada, the same year, the Chinese player had lost in the semi-finals to Japan's Kodai Naraoka, at 17-21 in the decider, even as Sen had been tamed by Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand in the other semi-final, and had had to settle for the bronze.

In the final of the Canada Open Super 100 tournament, earlier this year, Shifeng pipped veteran Indian Parupalli Kashyap at 20-22, 21-14, 21-17. That was after the Chinese teenager had ended runner-up in two BWF Challenge series €" the Austrian Open and the Iran Fajr International €" losing the title clashes to Mark Caljouw of the Netherlands and world junior champion Vitidsarn.

These details are being dredged up here to show the keen level of competition at even the World Tour Super 100 level tournaments. At this year's $75,000 prize money Dutch Open, two players ranked in the top 25 €" Sameer Verma (17) and Denmark's Rasmus Gemke (22) competed, as also six others ranked in the top 50, including Caljouw (ranked 33rd), Sourabh Verma (34th) and Frenchman Lucas Corvee (50th).

For Lakshya, it was a big step up from the capture of the men's singles title at the Belgian International, a Challenger-level tournament, at the expense of Denmark's Victor Svendsen. It put him firmly on course to achieve his first objective €" achieving a ranking within the top 50 €" that would smooth his path towards getting automatic entry into the top echelon of World Tour competitions.

Lakshya also has a year still left among the juniors, and would be a strong contender for the gold medal, as he is one of four teenagers jousting for the top-dog position among the under-19s €" the others being Thailand's Kunlavut Vitidsarn, Japan's Kodai Naraoka and China's Li Shifeng.

However, Vimal Kumar, chief badminton coach at the Dravid-Padukone Centre of Excellence (DPCE) in Bangalore, which houses the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, asserted that the Almora, Uttarakhand lad would not participate in the World Junior Championships as he would be competing on the regular circuit. In fact, he is unlikely to play any further junior tournaments, as he would find it far too taxing to play both the junior and senior circuits.

"At the beginning of the year, we had given Lakshya certain targets, one of which was to get into the BWF top-50," says Vimal. "He could have hit that target earlier, but he lost some close matches in Australia, New Zealand, US and Canada, and has also had his share of injuries. He is still growing, and we feel he will gain more height. Therefore, when he pushes himself hard in training and spends too much time on court practising, he finds himself susceptible to injury."

With Vimal busy with putting in place sponsorship deals for the DPCE with foundations like Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) and corporates like Infosys, the Dronacharya Award winning coach has been unable to travel to tournaments with Lakshya.

The task of travelling with the boy has been taken on by his father, DK Sen, himself a respected coach, while courtside assistance has been provided by the great Dane, Morten Frost, a four-time All-England winner and four-time runner-up.

"After finishing his stint in Malaysia, Morten signed a contract with us as a consultant, and is available four times a year €" for a month, every three months," says Vimal.

"He provides valuable inputs to our best players; and was in fact responsible for telling Lakshya to slow down at the midpoint of the second game in the Dutch Open final against Onodera, and conserve his energy for the rest of the match."

The inability to husband his resources wisely is one of the few shortcomings that the DPCE coach feels are coming in the way of his being openly heralded as the next Great Indian Hope. Vimal claims that Lakshya plays a continuously aggressive game, and hence ending up succumbing to a player who slows down the game €" as Sourabh Verma does so successfully against the youngster.

"Lakshya has been winning virtually every domestic tournament, and he only lost the 2019 National final to Sourabh because he just could not figure out what to do when Sourabh cleverly cut down the pace of the game," says Vimal.

"Otherwise, he has been consistently beating all our top guys €"(H S) Prannoy, Sai (Praneeth), Ajay Jayaram, (R M V) Gurusaidutt and (Parupalli) Kashyap.

"Our own quality DPCE players, like Kiran George and Mithun Manjunath, find it difficult to beat him. You remember, Kiran gave Sameer Verma a really hard time in the second round of the Dutch Open last week, but Lakshya handles him quite well. Once Lakshya gets his 'speed endurance' (the ability to play at the same high pace through the entire match) right, he will move to another level."

Over the next few months, Lakshya will be playing in the badminton league in Denmark for the Danish club Aarhus, whose star shuttlers include brothers Kasper and Anders Antonsen, the latter a World Championship runner-up to Kento Momota at Basel earlier this year.

No less a player than 2017 world champion Viktor Axelsen has credited his country's club system with regularly producing quality players; and there can be no doubt that Lakshya can benefit from his upcoming stint in Denmark in the same manner as the legendary Prakash Padukone did in 1980-81 after becoming the first Indian to win the prestigious All-England title.

Also See: Dutch Open badminton: Lakshya Sen beats Japan's Yusuke Onodera in summit clash to clinch maiden BWF World Tour title

Dutch Open badminton: Lakshya Sen beats Sweden's Felix Burestedt in straight games to enter singles final

Dutch Open: India's Lakshya Sen sails into men's singles semi-final with win over compatriot BM Rahul Bharadwaj

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