A family love affair behind Lakshya Sen’s world badminton bronze

  • Three generations of the Sen family have chased badminton excellence. They seemed to have found a champion in this month’s medal-winning show
India's Lakshya Sen(AP) PREMIUM
India's Lakshya Sen(AP)
Published on Dec 25, 2021 09:59 PM IST
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ByAvishek Roy

Lakshya Sen was in the middle of a pulsating battle against China’s Zhao Jun Peng in the world championships quarterfinals when his father and travelling coach Dhiren Sen, in the coach’s corner, realised it could be the moment they had worked for so long.

Lakshya, 20, was playing in his maiden world championships but understood the enormity of the occasion. The youngster had poured all energy into retrieving the shuttle from all over the court. At 19-20 in the decider, Lakshya held his nerves to save a match point and then produced two magical points to clinch bronze, the youngest Indian to achieve the feat in the world event. His mentor Prakash Padukone was the first Indian to win a world medal—bronze— in 1983.

In a way, it was the culmination of more than three decades of Lakshya’s grandfather Chandra Lal Sen and father Dhiren passionately nurturing badminton in the hills of Almora, Uttarakhand.

Chandra Lal loved the sport and played in veterans’ tournaments around the country. A badminton hall was built in Almora in the early ‘90s after years of trips to various government departments in Lucknow. It was the first step in the Sen family’s bid to raise a proper training facility.

“My father wanted kids in the region to learn badminton and play at a high level. At that time it was difficult to get anything done in the region. For everything we had to go to Lucknow (Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh only in 2000). Almora seemed to be cut off from the state. My father kept at it. He was a government employee and whenever he visited Lucknow would submit applications or meet officers and ministers for a badminton hall,” says Dhiren Sen. “Though a hall was built, it could not be used for badminton because the local contractor was using it as a warehouse.”

It did not douse the enthusiasm of father and son. By then, Dhiren had taken up the sport. He played at university level and then took up coaching. He did a coaching course at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala in 1985, and returned to Almora as SAI coach in 1991. “At NIS, I learned a lot from PK Bhandari sir and Manish Sharma. I wanted to go back to Almora and work there. There was a lot of potential in kids of the region but no training facility. My father was encouraging when I returned after my coaching stint in Lucknow. We asked a college if it would allow us to use a hall for training and they agreed,” he said.

Daily after classes, Dhiren and his friends would remove the furniture, turning it into a makeshift badminton hall. That was the routine for almost two years until they got possession of the badminton hall.

The training centre has come a long way now. It has sent 13 trainees to the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bengaluru.

“The badminton hall had just one court and was not a proper training centre. It was in bad condition because it was being used for something else. We had to work on it,” says Dhiren.

Since there was no room to accommodate all the children, the Sen family sought permission to build another court nearby. By early 2000, Dhiren’s trainees were making their mark in state-level tournaments and national meets. In 2003, at an event in Kozhikode, Prakash Padukone, impressed by the talent of young Almora shuttlers, wrote to the Uttarakhand government requesting better facilities.

“I still have that letter from Padukone sir,” says Dhiren proudly. “We were working with limited resources and infrastructure, but results at age-group level were encouraging. I really wanted to justify my presence as a SAI coach in Almora.

“Even Uttar Pradesh badminton officials were surprised, and visited the centre. I used the space to put up three-four nets and made mini courts for kids to practice, be it serves, parallel hitting, etc. That helped accommodate more children.”

Dhiren travelled to age-group tournaments where he picked the brains of coaches. That is how he came in contact with former India international Vimal Kumar, coach and director at PPBA. “In coaching, you have to constantly update and gain knowledge. I would take my kids along and talk to senior players and coaches.”

Lakshya and elder brother would often tag along when their grandfather—Chandra Lal Sen died in 2013—visited the one-court hall where their father would be busy in training.

Chirag, three years older to Lakshya, started winning national age-level meets and caught the eye of Padukone and Kumar in 2009. It was around the time when PPBA decided to focus solely on grooming young shutters. Many of Dhiren’s trainees were inducted in PPBA.

“Children from higher altitude have better endurance, and endurance is very important in badminton,” says Kumar. “We’ve known Sen for a long time. He was always present in junior ranking events. He would come with a group of youngsters and ask us to watch them. Chirag was very talented. We took a few more and Olympic Gold Quest came on board to support their stay and everything.

“We’ve got so many kids from him who have done well at national level. With limited facilities, it is difficult. The family has made a lot of sacrifices, so lot of credit goes to them,” says Kumar.

When Chirag was called to PPBA, Lakshya refused to let him go, insisting on going with him. “I asked him, 'why do you want to join' and he said he wanted to beat some doubles pair he had lost to. He was expressing that at such a young age,” Kumar recalls.

Lakshya was playing doubles with fellow Almora player Bodhit Joshi at that time. “We kept Lakshya. After six-seven months they actually beat the doubles pairs in a tournament. Lakshya was too small and didn’t have the strength or physique. But one most important aspect I noticed was that even then he had the ability to keep the shuttle inside the court. Compared to many good players, he will not make mistakes, he will somehow keep the shuttle in play,” Kumar says.

Lakshya showed his competitive streak at an age-group tournament in Singapore in 2011. He surprised everyone by winning it. “It was the first time he had gone for a tournament abroad and he beat an Indonesian in the final. He had barely spent a year with us!” says Kumar.

Through 2013 and 2014, Lakshya and other PPBA trainees went to Denmark for exposure events.

While Chirag made waves at the junior international meets and rose to junior world No 2, Lakshya was fast catching up. He won the Wimbledon, Swiss and Danish junior titles and bronze at the U-17 Badminton Asia Championships. In 2017, Lakshya became junior world No 1. He was beating established players at domestic events.

“At 14-15 he was troubling senior players; we could see he had some special quality,” says Kumar.

In 2018, he won silver in the Youth Olympics and trained under Danish legend Morten Frost in Denmark in 2019. He won the Dutch and Belgian Opens in his first year on the international circuit with Frost guiding him in both tournaments.

With Lakshya and Chirag constantly travelling for tournaments, Dhiren realised the family needed to shift to Bengaluru and work full time in shaping their careers. In 2018, he quit the SAI job and joined PPBA as coach. He is still in touch with the Almora facility, which now has four indoor courts. Lakshya’s world bronze at Huelva is a new high for young players.

“Laskhya’s journey will inspire a lot of younger players. Many do not get required financial support and exposure at the right age. If we can do that, there is no dearth of talent in our country,” says Kumar.

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Thursday, May 26, 2022