Badminton

Standing between Lakshya Sen and Tata Open title is Thai comeback man Sitthikom Thammasin

Both shuttlers are very similar in their playing styles and Sunday’s final promises to be a blockbuster.

Winning seven points in a row in a game of badminton is not unheard of by any means but given the situation and setting that Sitthikom Thammasin found himself in on Saturday, it could well be an achievement that triggers something special from the Thai in the months to come.

The 22-year-old shuttler was trailing 15-20 in the semi-final of the Tata Open India International Challenge on Saturday in Mumbai against 19-year-old Mithun Manjunath, who had the local crowd backing him.

But it didn’t make any difference to Thammasin, who took it one point at a time and got the score to 19-20. Then, he produced a flick serve, which took Manjunath by surprise as the birdie flew over his head and dropped at the back of the Indian’s service court, and it was all square. And before you knew it, the Thai had won the game 22-20.

This wasn’t the first time Thammasin had produced the flick serve at a crucial point in the tournament. In his pre-quarterfinal match against Sourabh Verma, the Thai had match point at 20-19 in the third game, when he caught the top seed off guard and went on to win the point and match.

‘A genius’

Armed with an extremely attacking game including a thunderous jump smash, Thammasin also comes across as a clever shuttler, or, as his coach Peeraphol Somphopcharoen likes to call him, “a genius”.

Somphopcharoen, or Tony as he refers to himself in the English-speaking part of the world, is probably Thammasin’s biggest fan. After almost every point his ward wins, Tony lets out a roar that can put any vocal sports fan to shame. After almost every game Thammasin has won in this tournament, Tony’s first reaction was to give him a salute – a gesture that has won over the sparse crowd that has come to watch the matches at the Cricket Club of India in the last four days.

Tony’s command of the English language unfortunately isn’t the best and you could sense that he felt genuinely bad that he could not communicate exactly what he thought of Thammasin, but he said enough to get the point across that the 22-year-old has a bright future, regardless of what happens on Sunday.

A look at his career would tell you why.

Thammasin is on a comeback trail on the international circuit after spending two years out with a knee injury and surgery. The Vietnam Open in September this year was the first tournament that Thammasin had played since October 2015, and he still managed to reach the quarter-finals.

A month later, he won the Indonesia International Challenge. A month after that, the current world No 161, is in another final of a Challenge-level tournament. “Next year, he will play Superseries,” said Tony, confidently.

Before that, he must take on Lakshya Sen, India’s teenage sensation in the final on Sunday. The junior world No 3 will again be the crowd favourite but, then, Thammasin has showed on more than one occasion in this tournament that fan allegiances hardly matter to him.

Blockbuster final

It promises to be a blockbuster final between two very similar players, who love to bombard their opponents with jump smashes and dictate play. “It should be a great match,” said Umendra Rana, one of Sen’s coaches from the Prakash Padukone academy. “Lakshya will have to outpace the Thai player and control the game, and that will be difficult.”

Sen’s best bet would be to engage Thammasin in long rallies and not look for quick points. “That’s where Mithun and [Sen’s brother] Chirag erred – they were in a hurry to finish the points and made mistakes,” added Rana. “Lakshya has to be patient, only then can he win.”

Luckily for Sen, he has played against someone with a similar style to himself two times in the last fortnight already so he would know what to expect. The Uttarakhand teenager had fought back from a game down to beat Malaysia’s Yee Han Chong 21-23, 21-10, 21-18 in the first round, just five days after a 21-15, 17-21, 21-17 victory over the same player in the final of the India International Series in Hyderabad.

Against Chong, Sen made sure his retrieving game was near flawless. He did not try to hurry during points and was more than happy rallying, getting control of the point and then unleashing his main weapon – the jump smash. Sen will have to do more of the same on Sunday. And look out for the Thai’s deceptive flick serve.

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