February 2, 2023

Lakshya Sen at All-England: Unemotional, unruffled, unstoppable

After 21 years, 22-year-old brings the impassive monk’s indifference to the All-England courts.

There is that tight-lipped, blasé eyed Emoji on the smiley page of most phones. Or a memory filament of a yellow-clad captain (in blue too) in control of his universe in cricket. It’s that rare un-Indian face in sport because it’s patently unemotional – with a nonplussed bearing, living nowhere, but in that moment, unaffected by what’s gone by, unruffled by what is to come. It’s that stillness before a 10.8 of India’s Olympic gold from a Beijing Monday morning, not calling attention to the trigger finger. In badminton, it’s the Lakshya lull, moments before young Sen’s storming of success.

On Saturday at the Arena Birmingham, India’s 22-year-old breath-pausing shuttler, stood on the court dispassionately, with no din of the crowd or dazzle of his opponent, seemingly affecting him one bit.

Leading 18-16 in the decider of the All England semifinals, Lee Zii Jia was wagging his finger at the ground and gnashing his teeth, confident the final was just 3 points away. Sen stood across the court, unperturbed, betraying neither pulsating worried nerves, nor the cold clinical ploy that was underway.

He just stood there breathing in, and then in one kinetic transition of a moment he exhaled the next short rally with an attack so ferocious in the smash kill that Zii Jia was broken in one excruciating moment.

Next point, Sen turned mammoth in size at the net and charging, looming like a giant about to slay the ripped Jii Zia, smashed from the forecourt. 18-18. The Malaysian limped the next shuttle into the net 19-18. Then came the push right at his face. 20-18. He sneaked one in, not with much conviction. 20-19. Second match point, Sen again smashed one straight, but it was the despairing return that he put away with the winning followup.

With a 21-13, 12-21, 21-19 thriller of a victory, Sen became the first Indian man in 21 years to make the All England finals.

Both Prakash Padukone (1980) and Pullela Gopichand (2001) could bring that stoic unfazed equilibrium to the court. After exactly 21 years, Sen brought the impassive monk’s indifference to the court, as nothing about the All England stage fazed him.

Not the prospect of missing out when he trailed 12-16 in the decider, not the fright of Zii Jia’s taser-like backhand crosscourt that zipped like a snorter from right to left.

Not his own brilliance in standing his ground in the tight spun net dribbles that finally went his way. Not the last point that was done and he dusted away with not so much as a sniffle, nor the next which would bring more of the same drama and high octane scrambles.

Sen even had on, invisible noise-cancelling headphones – or so it seemed, because the dinning crowd, screaming for or against him, barely seemed like in the same dimension as his focussed play.

India has waited patiently, almost helplessly for another All England final – the tournament that defines an upper echelon in this nation. A quarter of India wasn’t perhaps born when it last happened in men’s singles (Saina Nehwal ofcourse contested in 2015).

But none of that was weighing on Sen’s brain. History Channel was beaming the semis into Indian homes, but at no point did Sen look burdened by the might of the moment. He was just closing out another badminton game. No visible stress.

Sen has medalled at the World Championships last December, and since last Saturday’s German Open semis, defeated Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, World No 3 Anders Antonsen, Indonesian Asiad finalist Anthony Ginting and now Malaysian defending champion Lee Zii Jia. Last month, he won the India Open beating reigning champion Loh Kean Yew. They say young players fight without fear.

Sen in his current avatar, can fight without any emotion, including fearlessness. He flung the racquet in the air alright in the end and balled his fists quietly and consistently for every point won, but even after making the All England final, he didn’t throw himself to the ground or rip his shirt – with one match still away. Here is an Indian athlete who can empty entire sporting passages off histrionics, and purely play the game.

It wasn’t just the finish of course. If you tuned in a tad late, or very late, you wouldn’t know who was trailing or leading. And it wasn’t because of the proximity of the scores in the decider.

Sen has an all-court game, a very discretionary attack, and a football goalkeeper’s discreet defense. It doesn’t attract attention, so it can’t be singled out to neutralise or to stub away. There’s no lynchpin to his game that an opponent can plan against. And then there is that phlegmatic disposition which gives nothing away. Lin Dan played this way. Taufik Hidayat, though making a whole deal of being bored at times at how easy it was for him, could settle into this non-plussedness. The racquet not only did the talking, the struck strings were all that emoted.

Taking the opener 21-13 with the most controlled of puppeteering seen around, he fell back in the second in a bad way. He allowed Zii Jia to ride the wave to the point where the Malaysian believed he had this in his pocket. Sen was of course struggling against a blitzing attack that audibly went like an arrow through the air, and the ripped muscles that were directing the whips. But as always, his visage betrayed none of what he thought of it all in the second set.

There was a phase of the game in the second set when Sen put up some defiant points between trailing 6-16 and losing 12-2. Those were points meant to sow doubts in Jii Zia’s head about what was coming next. Sen held a taut control over what Zii Jia would think – he had the game to win this, but the opponent was lurking not too far away.

Sen has built a reputation of acing the clutch, of ramping up the vigilance and bird violence at the finish. In another un-Indian trait, he embraces this very nervy phase of a finish, as if it’s exactly what he always wants. You can’t see the storm coming because Sen keeps a smooth unaffected face. But in the sound of that silent lull, you can tell a Sen comeback is on its way. If you watched in India, then you sensed it from miles and oceans away.