Lakshya Sen goes down to steadier Kunlavut in German Open finalMarch 14, 2022
Lakshya Sen’s nine-match win streak was leashed and screeched to a skidding halt by Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn after the Indian lost 21-18, 21-15 in the final of the German Open Super 300.
Sen has become a pivot around which Indian performances on the international circuit have revolved in the last three months. Though Kidambi Srikanth picked the highest men’s singles medal by an Indian at the Worlds, a silver, it has been Sen’s breakthrough season – a Worlds medal, a maiden Super 500 title beating the World Champion, two wins over Top 5 players in four days: there’s been a frenzied swirl surrounding the rapidly-improved shuttler from Almora. Beating Viktor Axelsen in the semifinal on Saturday in a thriller was a remarkable achievement for the 22-year-old. But the nature of Sunday’s loss – he never got on top of Kunlavut – could be a sobering reality check of what lies ahead.
Kunlavut is a three-time World Junior champion, and his game is built around non-glamorous, unerring steadiness. There’s more to him of course – while he picked his maiden seniors title on the circuit after a bunch of finals losing to top names. But consistently making finals from the Bali swing of events to Mülheim points to a robust gameplan that is the staple khao (rice) of Top-5 regulars. The likes of Kento Momota, Chen Long, Chou Tien have piled up win after win playing this undramatic percentage game. Come All England, and Sen will be reminded of how the Top-Tenners do this week in week out, and how the rush of blood like what Sen or Loh Kean Yew unleashed can be smothered into submission with just the repetitive steadiness of the big names.
Kunlavut doesn’t belong to the old guard. But in being groomed to be a future World Champion, Thailand have prepared him in the arts of getting the job done with economy of movement and minimal turbulence.
So, he fell back on the staple of pushing Sen back, and pinning him there. Not just dispatched to the baseline, but made to torque his torso and bring his deep, wide backhand into play repeatedly, so that he held no leverage at the net. Sen likes his hopping explosive bursts charging the net and eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations. But Kunlavut would have none of it. He led from 5-5 in the opener, and never allowed Sen to get his hoofs anywhere near his own heels thereafter.
Weapons of his own
Parrying Sen’s attack by taking the sting out of it was one thing. But Kunlavut had his own overhead deceptions that Sen found hard to read. There were drops to the forecourt, whippily-played smashes, and also a whole lot of wristy business in his deep returns and clears that kept Sen knotted in his response at the back court. A bunch of smashing attacks aligned far too close to Sen’s body meant the Indian was struggling to meet Kunlavut’s ripostes with his usual reflexes.
At one point trailing 13-10, Sen notched one of his typical swift reaction defensive returns that’ll get added to YouTube reels. But it was a good day to realise that relying on manic defence to collect wins day in, day out in punishing rallies of who-blinks-first might not be a laborious luxury he’ll always be afforded. The fast and fit and fresh amongst his opponents will refuse to engage in his favoured skirmishes and simply keep him at bay. At one point, Sen’s usually reliable defence even turned pedestrian, but that might well be regulation against the top names in coming days. Dazzling defence has its limitations.
At 20-18 in the opener, Sen took a medical break to tend to a blister on the insole of his left foot, and that troubled him again in the second game. But his problems were more than that of court movement, and Kunlavut’s pace, precision and unyielding strokes offered Sen no passageway. In Game 2, The Thai never lost the lead. He alongwith world champ Loh (party trick: flash speed) and Sen (pet gig: defence) form the young tyros looking to dislodge the established order in badminton. There’s also Anders Antonsen a shade older, but hitting his peak and a clutch of Chinese jostling for the top spaces. But All England might be the first tournament since the Olympics that the big names put their foot down on the tyro revolution that’s threatening them.