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Loh, Lakshya, Lee: Can the badminton NextGen pass their most difficult test at All England?

With too many young hands vying for the All England title, it'll be up to the NextGen trio of Loh Kean Yew, Lakshya Sen and Lee Zii Jia to level up and carry out the usurpation.

badminton nextgen all england open loh kean yew lakshya sen lee zii jia
Is the badminton NextGen ready for the takeover at the All England Open - Loh Kean Yew, Lakshya Sen and Lee Zii Jia (from left to right)

Sohinee Basu

Published: 15 March 2022 1:36 PM GMT

If there is one string threading the young trio of Loh Kean Yew, Lakshya Sen and Lee Zii Jia, it is that they are giant killers on a mission and have registered at least, one emphatic victory over reigning World No. 1 and Olympic champ Viktor Axelsen to boast on their fast-filling CV's, aside from adding neat titles recently.

Chipping away for the top honours for the last couple of years, the pack of badminton town's NextGen is a storehouse of talent and simply, younger, better, and updated versions of the old guard. And going by their German Open heroics, the stage is set for them to make their next move on the board with the All England Open due to start from 16th March at Birmingham, United Kingdom.

Not just this trio, even others like Thailand's Kunlavut Vitidsarn, a 3-time Junior World Champion, Frenchman Toma Junior Popov are also brilliant products ready to prove their worth against the established order and a difficult test awaits them at the world's oldest existing badminton tournament, which will be hosting its 114th edition.

For one, two out of these three are looking to debut at the All England while the other is trying to defend - the range is indeed, wild.

Loh Kean, 24, Lakshya, 20 - one a World Champion, the other a World Championship bronze medallist and Lee, 23, the reigning All England champ have a tough test to crack at the upcoming Super 1000 which will have them pitted once more, against each other and the veterans in a fight for the prestigious title.

Throughout the past season and the nascent one of 2022, the trio exemplified their ability to hold their own in pressure situations - no matter who is on the other side of the net, but even with only limited experience, the fact that the NextGen of badminton has been able to step up to this level and give the metaphorical and literal run for the money to seasoned campaigners like former All England champs Axelsen and Momota is enough to take heart from.

However, the All England Open Badminton Championships will prove to be a different ball game altogether. At the stage of a BWF Super 1000 event, the stakes are higher and the 'survived smartly' attitude cannot sustain them if they intend to use this platform to usurp, symbolically.

Consistency the concern for badminton's NextGen?

World Champion Loh Kean Yew (Source: Getty)

The playing field of badminton hasn't been the typical one with the pandemic turning villain but these NextGen stars have made most of the opportunities that came their way. Most Chinese players steered clear of competition in the majority of 2020-21 and are only coming back now, which did play a role in the sudden surge of Asian talent sans any Chinese face in it.

If not found squabbling with each other over which titles to take and which colour of the medal to settle for, the NextGen badminton squad, fairly led by Loh Kean Yew, Lakshya Sen and Lee Zii Jia now, keeps themselves busy creating upsets - defeating an Axelsen or a Kento Momota, every now and then.

From all this, what's heartening to see is that the competition has only grown and it isn't consolidated to the Axelsen's, Momota's and Long's but rather have the younger lot also fighting their way in. So varied is this competition now in the men's singles field that even predicting winners have become a big gamble, which is excellent tidings for the sport.

But if there is one thing that the Axelsen's and Momota's can boast of having to justify their status as a threat, it is their dalliance with being consistent and being big-match players, which is a bit that the NextGen need to take notes from before beginning their All England campaign.

Engaging in physical games more - sliding and dashing at every chance, this trio needs to ensure the maturity they display at the Super 1000 level is enough to tame the old guard. Instead of making it a 'surprise' win thanks to their strategic tricks aplenty, they will have to brush up and not leave room for errors because the title is one, but there are far too many young and deserving hands vying to reach for it.

2021 All England champ Zii Jia who defeated Momota and Axelsen to claim that coveted crown, may have suffered a semi-final defeat to eventual German Open champion and another 20-year-old sensation Kunlavut Vitidsarn, last week, but he will come all guns blazing to the Super 1000 tournament.

However, the Malaysian ace, expected to follow in the steps of the legendary Lee Chong Wei, will begin his title defence against Japan's Kenta Nishimoto and a possible quarter-final match-up against Kento Momota also remains in the fray.

Meanwhile, Singapore's Loh Kean Yew, famed for his quick movements and deception, has to start against seasoned Dane Anders Antonsen in the first round and that cannot be an easy start. A possible meet with Lakshya Sen, now a familiar face at these big stages, also remains in the pipeline. But so far, Yew's consistency is lacking and after the Huelva triumph, the 24-year-old hasn't had a big title hurrah.

Can Lakshya Sen end India's 21-year-old wait for another All England title?

Lakshya Sen (Source: BAI)

In badminton, winning the All England Open is considered equivalent to stumbling across the Holy Grail. And India has stumbled on it only twice, so far - in 1980 when Prakash Padukone won and then in 2001 when Pullela Gopichand clinched the honours. The only other Indian to have come so much as near to laying their hands on it was Saina Nehwal in 2015 when she finished as the runner-up to Carolina Marin.

But what is interesting is that the last time India won an All England, Lakshya Sen wasn't even born. It has been 21 years hence and India's title drought at this Super 1000 has been palpable. But with Lakshya Sen, India is starting to hope again and for good reason too, given how Lakshya ticked the box of consistency and won the World Championships bronze, followed it up with a India Open Super 500 win (against Loh in the finals) and just now, finished with a silver at the German Open 2022, defeating World No. 5 Anthony Ginting and recorded a thriller victory against Axelsen in the semi-finals, en route.

With his enviable skills at the net, Lakshya is making rapid inroads and is now the new World No. 11, too, building his case strongly for a good outing at the All England - but even he will have hurdles plenty to cross.

Set to begin against Indian compatriot Sourabh Verma in the first round of All England, Lakshya will have to square off against either World Champion Loh Kean Yew (again) or Denmark's Anders Antonsen in the second round itself, yet another big name to be wary of.

With the stage already set, it is now up to the NextGen to take the centre of it.

The tale of usurping is the one and the same and needs no Macbetheian machinations as much as it demands consistent efforts of excellence, which they will have to vie for. Therefore, it's a standard rule book trope for the new-kid-on-the-block to give the veterans a run for their money - and this, the trio of Singapore's Loh Kean Yew, India's Lakshya Sen and Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia have been doing for a while now, making them the strongest candidates to create trouble at All England.

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