I have just begun | By Lakshya Sen
A string of semi-finals and a bronze from his debut Badminton World Championships, Lakshya Sen, with his 'baddy genes' is on a roll - and he is just getting started.
I had already won the first game. 21-17. The clock was ticking - the minutes going fast. On the opposite end of the net was a familiar face. Bearded, keen eyes, the fire raging in it - all-too-familiar, I knew I had to leave this familiarity business out of the way. Not today, not when a semi-final is at stake.
No, I told myself, he isn't Kidambi Srikanth - someone you admire, look up to, your teammate, a former World No.1, none of that today - for today, for now, he is just another opponent trying to get in the way of a silver medal from your debut Badminton World Championships. The finish line is almost there - can't you see it?
A flurry of emotions played in my mind as the shuttle flew from my side to his - the battle of nerves was on. Kidambi matched me shot for shot, I pushed him to his extremes, as well. Whenever I am on the court, it is the racquet and I that speak to each other, the fight for every point is what matters and that's what we did at the Palacio de Deportes Carolina Marin in Huelva, Spain - each incredibly eager to clinch a slice more of the history on offer.
After a blitzing 69 minutes of intense badminton action, it was over. Kidambi Srikanth won 21-17, 14-21, 17-21 - we walked up to each other, tired smiles lacing our sweaty, drained faces as we embraced each other at the net. We did it, didn't we?
We bagged two medals for India at the World Championships - a silver and a bronze, no matter what, and all the hard work, all those hours on the court spent training for this day - it finally bore fruit - didn't Indian badminton win in this, really?
A little over a week has lapsed since that encounter and as I sit here, the bronze medal secured neatly - I look back and reflect.
Would I want to play Kidambi again in that semi-final? You can bet, yes, I would love to have a replay and that would be the ideal way to get over this heartbreak.
But, even if I don't get to do that, in retrospect, 2021 has been incredibly kind to me, the newly-appointed World No. 17 on the BWF rankings for 2021. Starting out the year, I did not know that I'll be taking the leaps I took - a debut and a semi-final run at the World Tour Finals, a bronze from the World Championpionships, a semi-final at Hylo Open, a quarter-final at French Open, a runner-up title at Dutch Open, a semi-final at Denmark Masters, et al - at the end of it the bronze from the World championships seems like a priceless win - but I know this is just the beginning, a long road ahead awaits now.
The genetic fever of badminton in the Sen family
Growing up in the lap of the Kumaon hills in Almora, I was merely a kid when I would coil my little fingers around his big ones, snuggling them inside the warm, callused yet soft palm of my grandfather, racquets strung to both our backs as we would head down to the lone court in Almora to play badminton. Grand senior Sen would always make me wait for my chance - he'd have his own group of badminton enthusiasts and only after he was done playing would he look at me and signal me to step on the court for a sparring session. I would wait impatiently for him to do that.
In all honesty, my family has been extremely sporty but the love affair with badminton is almost genetic. My grandfather most definitely passed it onto my father, Dhiren Sen and he only ensured that this chain reaction was a success when both Chirag (my elder brother) and I soon became afflicted in this love affair of rallies and smashes and delectable winners.
They might say blood sugar is genetic but in the Sen family, the badminton bug is real. And we love the bug - our lives have at some point or the other revolved around it - badminton, the sun, we the loyal moons and we were ready to move mountains (literally) for this love.
My age hadn't reached double-digits when my badminton-eating-and-breathing family decided to take a life-changing step. I was to be shipped, in fact, all of us were soon to be shipped from the Kumaon hills to the concrete metropolis of Bengaluru - in pursuit of better courts and mostly, better life of badminton.
Prakash Padukone Sir saw me then - I hardly stood a little above his waist then but my enthusiasm and ambitions were readily on display - I had the hunger, I wanted the win and someday, like Prakash Sir, also make India proud because of my badminton. After Indonesia's Taufik Hidayat, it was Prakash Padukone who had been my inspiration to take up badminton - I was ready to do anything to walk in the steps of such greatness.
I soon joined the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bangalore and my father personally looked into my coaching too - as he continues to do even now - cheering on quietly from the sidelines. Countless hours have been spent in trying to reach where I am today - and to think, it is only the tip of the iceberg that we have managed to touch now. I can never be grateful enough to my family for sticking with me through thick and thin and helping me adjust to Bangalore life and making me the human being I am today.
The callings of a New Year - 2022 beckons
I remember being a little kid when I started to dream big - medals from the Olympics, World Championships, All England - there was so much to be done. At 20, with my first medal from the World Championships already collected - the future only excites me. I no longer get nervous or worry whenever I'm heading out to play - be it a Kento Momota or a Viktor Axelsen that I'm playing, I simply don't let any pressure get to it - I play my game, do whatever it takes to win the point.
I don't like having a favorite shot that way because if I do, I will start playing it often and my opponent will notice and read into it - that can never be good thinking. I've recently grown to love playing at the net but I'm someone who would like to leave the opponent guessing - no matter who it is I am facing. Although if it is somebody who is my contemporary, like Kunlavut Vitidsarn, the sense of competition only intensifies.
It has been a hectic season of badminton but a very fulfilling one for me and my team and the journey, no matter how taxing, has ultimately paid off in the end. Away from home for more than two months, the heart would sometimes get homesick and the living-out-of-a-suitcase-life would rarely get to me only when I would long for the bliss of Indian food.
There is a lot to love about the badminton life and when I'm in Paris or Amsterdam, my reasons to love badminton only amplify, as I get to walk around and explore the beautiful cities - but just at times, do the pangs for home become palpably strong. I may be 20 now but there is hardly any regret I have of missing out on anything - I am getting to do what I love the most in my life - play badminton and that in itself is enough to make me dream those big dreams still.
Having capped off a good 2021 season, 2022 is knocking on the door with the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games to look forward to. As another New Year's approach, I hope to keep this same momentum going, growing from strength to strength and getting my hands on the medals from Asiad and CWG. I cannot wait to get back on the court - train, win and train some more, and keep moving towards the Paris Olympics with the medal dreams on my mind.
(As told to Sohinee Basu)