German Open: Viktory from the jaws of defeat for Lakshya SenMarch 13, 2022
No lead is safe, neither rankings nor reputation secure – the badminton world is fast discovering – when Lakshya Sen starts snapping at famed heels.
For some time now, Sen has been making a mockery of momentums that his opponents try stringing together to establish a shielded buffer-space between them and the Indian. But then with a stalker’s obstinacy and the sheer menace of his relentless defending, Sen closes in on his rivals and incites such harakiri in their game, that a finish in his favour looks almost always inevitable. A pair of Chinese, and Kidambi Srikanth almost came under the pump at December’s World Championships. Now it’s the big guns being pursued with pestilence.
Viktor Axelsen was raced down like Pietro Maximoff would chase down Hawkeye in a Marvel episode. Great distance eaten up in a flash of footsteps, though in these real life sporting frames, long, punishing rallies rather than a quick blitz of kills gave Sen the 21-13, 12-21, 22-20 win over the great Dane in the semis of the German Open Super 300.
On Saturday, at the picturesque Mülheim an der Ruhr, the 22-year-old from Almora, set fire to water in the city on the river. Viktor Axelsen, tall, strapping, Olympic champion and World No.1, was brought under such incisive, intense pressure trying to close out the match, that he wilted at the 70-minute mark. It was the sort of imploding that left the partisan crowd, rooting for their European, plainly stunned, because the Indian just wouldn’t stop haranguing the favourite.
From what is known, Axelsen is vulnerable when opponents crowd him at the net, or when opponents start breathing down his neck at the finish. He made provisions for this possibility, taking a massive 16-9 lead in the decider, from either side of the windy court. But then he couldn’t make head or tail of what Sen was stringing together: a monstrous manic defense.
Sen has been working at his anticipation and defensive movements, plugging spaces on court as he scrambles and dives around plenty. Dives, and crucially recovers for the follow-up. It had been drilled into Sen by coach Vimal Kumar that Viktor’s sharp cross hits, especially from round the head, but also from the forehand needed to be retrieved, no matter what else went wrong.
Very rationed offense – steep and very sharp smashes of his own had given Sen the opening set 21-13. A fightback from the Olympic champion was expected. Yet, you got the sense that Sen relaxed a tad in the second when he was 8-3 up, and allowed Axelsen a toe-hold to stomp open the door to the 1-1 set leveller.
The court drift was playing its part, but Sen can run up such a frenzy that he stills the wind and the crowds too, when it comes to the clutch. Still, going into the third with momentum for the Dane, and playing against the drift, it was thought that Sen would notch up yet another valiant fight in vain against a big name. But something has clearly changed at the World Championships for the bronze medallist. Retrieving with vengeance
Big man Axelsen was revving his bigger smashing shoulder, and hitting through Sen comfortably. Then Lakshya did his thing – retrieved with such vengeance that it started chipping away at the Dane’s confidence. Axelsen isn’t brittle and on previous occasions has growled back to shut down pretenders. But there is something sinister about the smiling Indian when things get stiff at the business end. All England of 2020 comes to mind, where Sen had started with a tiny scarring of the Dane before he was squashed. On Saturday, after 4 matches, Sen refused to cower.
A 4-point defensive flurry brought Sen from 9-16 down to 13-16 striking distance. Here he ran down every bird to every corner of the court, and audaciously played to the lines, in a throwback to his giddy World Championship get-and-goes. Vimal Kumar had instructed him to watch videos of how the Japanese metronome Kento Momota hassles Axelsen. Additionally, he told Sen that he had a better biting kill shot that would serve him well after he had put in the defensive workrate. Sen would do just that.
He isn’t exactly prancing around scrambling these days, there’s a solidity to his footwork in defense pointing to better striding and anticipation. But it needed committing to a punishing pace and expending of energy. Sen would go all in, pick every bird and chomp at the lead to reach 15-17.
Axelsen wasn’t done, and threw his last might to get to 19-15. But there was a whiff of horrendous judgements on his part, as he sprayed the shuttle wide – either from panic or over-charging his power play. It gave Sen another 4 straight points to level at 19-19.
Big names can close out from here. Axelsen sure can though it was perhaps that eagerness that was his undoing. Sen brought out his own attack as well – hitting deep, hitting precise, allowing the score pressure to boggle Axelsen’s brain, demanding errors now not just teasing them out. Axelsen’s last throw of the dice was a beautiful half smash cross court, nuanced and masterly to level at 20-20. But he had left poise for too late. Sen was not to be denied.
A shuttle dumped into the net by Axelsen as Sen stole his second match point, pointed to just how much the Indian had harried the big name. Setting up a final with fellow youngster Kunlavut Vitidsarn, after accounting for World No 4 Anthony Ginting, a skatish speed gun, Sen has sent tremors heading into All England.
Vimal Kumar had instructed two things: to believe that he could beat Axelsen. And to refrain from going all-out guns blazing like he had in previous matches. Lakshya Sen then brought his bloody-minded defense to complete the perfect upset frame. —