Chasing Rudy Hartono, the greatest amongst a surfeit of badminton champions from Indonesia, had ended in a glorious false start at the Asian Games this August. Seeing commotion and (mis)hearing a name similar to his on the first day, I’d followed an entourage and security ring at the Games press centre. You don’t go to Rio and return without seeing the Christ the Redeemer statue. But having done that, it would’ve been unforgivable to go to Indonesia and never catch a glimpse of the biggest name in badminton.
Approaching the tailor-suited back of the VIP, I’d sensed that the player whose grainy pictures (poised to receive serve) from the 60s make it to the internet had been considerably taller than the gent whose important conversation I was about to barge upon. When the country’s Minister of Communication and IT, Rudiantara, turned around instead, I was immediately left improvising and bumbling some feigned admiration for the country’s impending 5G (wireless) services to follow up the “Big Fan” introduction I’d blurted out.
The Big Chase back-story might have fallen flat at the first step like a limp netted shuttle. Mercifully, when I meet the real Rudy in Thiruthangal, a quiet town brewing a badminton revolution in Tamil Nadu, the man is brimming with enough tales of his 8 staggering All England titles, told with much glee, candour and animation. Tales of a military coup and change of regime in his country that played out in the backdrop of training. And how while he sported the blessed Beatles moptop, he had shut out all the music wafting through England, even as the Rolling Stones made a racket dabbling with psychedelic rock and returned to blues to start their golden age.
The year was 1968 and Hartono was about to kickstart his own juggernaut, creating an unmatched legacy with his racquet. Monkishly focused on winning the All England, he would rattle the riffs overnight changing the way the sport looked — bringing in his brand of ceaseless speed and attacking power. By the time others caught up with him and he was onto his third straight title at Wembley (at two separate All Englands he conceded a mere 44 and 39 points over five matches to all his opponents combined), the Stones had climbed to greatness with Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers.
Ask him if he swayed along to take his mind off the pressure to win. “Books? Never read. Music? Maybe, little. But since I was so obsessed with the sport, my friends would drag me to concerts and movies in England, and nothing would register because the goal of 7 titles was not yet conquered. Till today, I can’t enjoy if you take me to a place with beautiful scenery, because I’m not used to looking around. I only understood shooting (action) movies – boom, boom, smash,” he chortles.
The world around him, to be sure, was in a flux. Besides Messrs Jagger & Richards’ defiant rebellion, John Lennon was considering returning his MBE protesting war. French director Jean-Luc Godard was shredding Hollywood’s conventions after radically scything through French cinema and Kenneth Anger was dabbling with counter culture — teenyboppers and hippies, rebellion writ large in his movie, Lucifer Rising.
At the Merdeka Square in Jakarta, close to Indonesia’s national training centre, Hartono recalls the restlessness closer home on the night of 30 September 1965 with the assassination of an army general.
“Oh there were fears mongering that the communists would come and the country was moving from Sukarno to Suharto. In the two months after the generals were assassinated, soldiers entered the training centre. So we would be training, and they would be resting and sleeping in the stands, not bothering us though. I remember the guns they carried, but I was so immersed in badminton that nothing registered,” he recalls.
By 1967, the itch had gotten irresistible with Indonesia searching for the unofficial World Championship crown (which All England was dubbed) after Tan Joe Hok won in 1959. Hartono was consumed by the goal, and after nicking a match in the Thomas Cup tie against Tan Aik Huang, wildly confident that he could manage an encore at All England. His father had packed him off to Surabaya (one of Indonesia’s four shuttle haunts besides Jakarta, Central Java and Bandung) with two sparring partners since the national centre only camped for the Thomas Cup.
“I started because of my senior Muljadi, and my sister Jeanne Uttama Dewi was an inspiration because she was diligent about training the right way though she wasn’t a complete player. My father told me if I wanted All England I should go to Surabaya and coach myself, so I planned everything myself,” he recalls.
“My biggest obstacle was boredom and loneliness. After 1000 repetitions (which were necessary to grow muscle memory), I had to daily push myself to do it all over again,” he says. So, does muscle memory mean he can wake up from his sleep and play a shot a certain way? “No,” he shoots back, a worshipper of sleeping as a means to heal the body. “Sleep is for dreaming only. Resting. Don’t ruin the recovery by playing shots in half-wakedness,” he slashes, before adding that he never slept well before a semi or final. “Muscle memory meant reflexes and footwork that became instinct like in boxing and karate.”
In 1967, Hartono had done his job winning his match against Malaysia at the Thomas Cup and learnt very early that he could shut out crowds – even the unruly one at Istora Senayan, the country’s official gladiatorial ring that bays for blood. “You can’t think about the crowd. It’s their job to scream, mine to win. No distractions,” he recalls.
His only job was to prepare and he would set out five months before March, starting October of 1967. “Every single day, wake up in the morning and prepare for All England. For those 10-odd years, it was a routine. My holiday was Saturday evening upto Sunday noon. Sunday 4 pm, I’d start with running and skipping. If I didn’t train a day, I’d feel like everything’s wrong,” he says.
He’d play other sports too. “Ideally everyone must have two sports – one for hobby, one for achievement. Badminton, ping-pong and swimming go well. No tennis – the swing takes too long,” says the legend who found some mirth in golf in later years, and a single-digit handicap till his back packed up. “I had so much to do because I didn’t have a coach. So I became self-sufficient on the court and had no time for distractions,” he adds.
In the 1968 semifinals, he would under-estimate his Danish opponent, a certain Svend Pri, and make mistakes, recovering in the nick of time. “It had been difficult to get to London, and an oil company had to buy my tickets. But I enjoyed winning the final so much after the tricky semi. At the Indonesian embassy, we celebrated with champagne out of tea-cups!” he recalls.
Svend was shaping into a very good player by the time they met in 1970. A year earlier, Hartono had romped home against team-mate Darmadi.
The first five-points theory
“Start of the next decade, Hartono would run into his idol Muljadi. “Again I knew I’d beat him because he was defensive and I was still young.” Typically, Hartono believed in grabbing the first five points and then letting points-pressure (of that era’s scoring system) break down opponents’ resolves.
“I had to get that early lead and not give the opponent any opportunity to attack. Even in endings, the plan was short serve and attack,” he claims of how he finished Svend Pri’s run in 1972. The short serve – like his nuanced smash – was strategic. It wasn’t too close to the net, but much flatter and deeper so it goes further and pushes them back. He had the flat and cross variations and derived wicked joy in sending it forth in a way that only forehand tappers could pounce on it. Those were scanty.
Hartono calls his smashes “effective” though they were his biggest weapon. “Svend’s smashes were hard. Liem Swie King’s were difficult because he had the ‘King Jump’ so you didn’t know where they’d go. Mine were deceptive because at the last minute, I would snap my wrist. They were lethal because they were sharp, though not hardest,” he says.
Hartono countered the 300 kph King bazooka smash by reducing the speed to unsettle him, though he’d prove to be his toughest opponent, as he was pushed to think of a set at a time. He reckons that the 1980 World Championships against King weren’t easy, though he was chuckling about his luck all through the 1973 All England title when he beat Christian Hadinata. “That was a mental year, and I was so lucky,” he laughs. Not only was Hadinata a doubles player – but he had taken out Svend Pri in the semis too. “He played Svend in the semis, and was actually a doubles player. Sometimes you get through, but I kept thinking, how could he win! But actually Svend had made a mistake. He would always stay in a hotel on Oxfort Street – I think – which was too far. That day he took a taxi, which took him round and round and he reached 15 minutes before his semifinal and he was panicking. He was very angry, and played very badly. I told him Ok, Ok, next time, knowing I’d win.”
The toughest title
The 7th title proved to be the toughest. Hartono recalls all his conceit and feelings of superiority against doubles players being put under severe strain as he saw his ego humbled by Punch Gunalan. “I knew he was tough despite him being doubles player. He won the first 15-8, but I had the idea that when I attack you, tiredness will start to set in. He tried all-out war and then started playing speculative (risky) shots in the decider.”
He should’ve known the slide was imminent. In 1975, he would face Svend Pri again. “I had so much confidence in myself. I still think about what happened. (Pri won 15-11, 17-14). I was leading in the second set, 11-6, I think, and 99 per cent of times I’d have won from there. But I lost. It’s a regret I carry even today. It was a lesson that I had to train more. Failure teaches you more than wins,” he says, the only time he’s downbeat in the interaction.
Though Hartono doesn’t regret missing out on the Olympics (he retired in 1982, a decade before the sport debuted at the Barcelona Games), the 1975 loss gave him a visceral insight into failure. “I was ashamed of losing since I was a kid, even in practice I wanted to be better. So, 1975 completely threw me. I had to face my worst fear,” he says. He learnt of this relationship with failure in the grimmest of ways.
In what would be the most heart-breaking tidings to reach him in 1983, Svend Pri – himself going through acute depression – would succumb to his second suicide attempt. “It shocked me because I’d met him 3 months ago and asked him to come to Indonesia so we could find solutions to this together. My English wasn’t very good, and I couldn’t communicate better, but I had known he was upset with himself, and blamed himself too much. I had gone through times when I (wrongly) thought a loss equalled end of everything. In that phase, you think, there’s no reason to live, everything is gone, and I was ashamed of myself,” he recalls of his complicated engagement with the idea of losing his playing prowess and dominance as the 80s rolled in.
Somewhere along the way, he found religion. A practicing Protestant, he would pull himself back from the brink. “Prayer is like meditation to believe that you are not alone, and God will help you to accept defeat. In 1975 it got tough. You think you’ll get over it in the first 7 days, but then it takes weeks and months. You have to carry that burden for a year, and realise failure is a tool to motivate you to do better. Not more,” he asserts.
In 1973 in fact, a small error had cost Hartono the lone match against Svend Pri as Indonesia beat Denmark 8-1. “Thomas Cups are high pressure and they’re telecast everywhere. That loss was like a shock therapy. But you know like all Indonesian crowds, I loved Svend Pri and loved watching him play. He was always animated and could change games in a split-second.”
The player that confounded him more than anyone was Japanese Ippei Kojima. “He was very short, but would run around like there’s no tomorrow. He’d drive me mad with his returns, and I’d say what the hell! I would hit harder and try to make him upset,” he recalls of a frustrating 1971 Danish final.
Two things rattled him more. Giving speeches in English (“I’ve played a set extra hoping to avoid giving a speech.”) and the forks, knives and spoons of the multiple course meals. “No putting knife in mouth and start with spoons out first, or in first?” he cackles. Though what irked him the most about England was the travel. “Jakarta – Bangkok – Mumbai – Abu Dhabi – somewhere in Netherlands and then London. After 22 hours. Nightmare,” he recalls.
He wasn’t very superstitious, though spicy food, sambhal and coconut oil were barred during tournaments. Fiercely possessive of his racquets though (“It’s my real weapon, other players can’t borrow it – I’ll never give it, don’t ask), he could get childishly proprietary. The cold weather in England would snap the gutting (string tension set at 25-26, he broke 5 racquets once), but he grew to like the place. “It’s alright I guess. 8 titles, not too bad.”
Indonesia’s attempts to airdrop the strapping shuttler into a movie also failed spectacularly. “I don’t like how they made movies. When I’m ready with make-up in morning session, how can you start filming at midnight?” he says, still exasperated.
In the end, the All England is the lens through which Rudy Hartono would see the world. Including the mutual respect for Prakash Padukone with whom he traded wins in his later years. “I liked watching his strokes. It wasn’t easy to beat Liem Swie King, Prakash’s defence was like a wall that day in 1980.” The details aren’t very sharp, but he remembers meeting a 16-year-old Padukone at a hotel in India, the latter packed off to accompany the champion to the stadium. Padukone has written the account, where he mentions how two hours before the match, he found Hartono skipping a thousand of his ‘double unders’ – high jumps so the rope passes twice under the feet.
“Look, endurance meant I had to be prepared for players stretching me to one hour. If you had to play one hour, you had to simulate that for 45 minutes atleast back then. That was 6,000 jumps. That day when he came into the hotel was match day, so I did just 3,000,” he recalls, very coolly.
The Living Legend
Rudy Hartono, 69, Indonesia
# Won the All England Championship eight times starting age 18, seven times consecutively (1968–1974 & 1976)
# World Champion in 1980
# Retired in 1982 as the most famous badminton player
# Known to have revolutionised the game with his speed
# Loves Indian food and can eat poori bhaji expertly with a spoon & fork
# Legendary rivalry with Danish Svend Pri
# Won the final at the 1972 Munich Olympics (demonstration sport)