His easy languid gait and a measured, considered manner of talking betray what Rudi Hartono is in a frightful hurry to say: India’s shuttlers are giving themselves far too long to reach the top, and need to cut down their peaking age by at least 5 years, to 20.
The eight-time All England champion from Indonesia, easily one of badminton’s greatest icons, is in sleepy Thiruthangal, watching over 14-17 year-old elite trainees at the freshly-painted Hatsun Academy. The 69-year-old legend, brought in to speak to the young Tamil Nadu shuttlers, rustles up a storm in the quiet town, and minces no words in telling a bunch that’s 15 year old that they have exactly five more years to get their fitness, technique and mental training into place, after which they ought to start challenging for the topmost titles.
“Next five years,” he booms, opening up his fist to further underline the urgency. “Don’t think ‘I’m still young and I have all the time.’ Once you are picked by an academy, it is your duty to pursue excellence and be ready by 20,” urged the man whose first All England title came at 18, and who was gunning for his eighth, reclaiming a lost crown, at 29. “You can’t say you are only children and so you can enjoy a little, and allow yourself distractions. Winning world titles is never easy, so you can’t keep putting learning off till tomorrow,” he roared while frowning upon youngsters who showed even a small sign of taking this phase of training life casually.
Conceding that there are many world champions who won post 25, Hartono was nevertheless of the opinion that muscles are at their prime between 20 and 25 (for men), and starting 18 (for women). “Yes, there will be those that blossom late and in India till now, players didn’t have the structured support. Prakash (Padukone) and Gopi (Chand) had nothing compared to what kids are getting now, so they must make use of this,” he stressed.
Maintaining that game maturity had nothing to do with age, Hartono vigorously shot down the idea that Indians mature late – both physically and mentally, and hence aim for 27-28 to hit their stride. “After 17, the attitude must be that I’m ready to fight for the big senior titles. Then by 20, you might actually get there,” said the champ, who started playing at eight, and spent the next 10 years self-coaching and putting together a game of speed and power that ruffled all of badminton’s feathers in the late-1960s.
Having watched both Toufik Hidayat (18) and Lin Dan (22) strike the biggies early – just like himself – Hartono stressed that this dawdling around in the juniors hampered maturity, even as muscles started declining post 25. Indians put a lot of store on juniors, and then take a sizable number of years transitioning. Indian culture that prioritises academics also means the peak training years in the teenage are spent grappling with studies.
Hartono, who first played in India in the 70s and recalls a Thomas Cup tie in Jaipur for the crowd’s enthusiastic support, stresses though that the country has come a long way. “That time the standard of Indian players was not as high as now. I would enjoy playing here knowing I would win. But now Indian players are world-standard. In my time the game was not so popular in India, except Bombay and Delhi,” he recalls.
Padukone’s rise in global badminton would coincide with the fag end of Hartono’s career. “He was a good strokemaker, and then when he mixed speed and fitness with those strokes he became a winner. He was a joy to watch. Gopichand was different style, but at the end of the day he won the All England, which is a big result.”
While he reckons that Saina Nehwal’s experience will see her through the current stage of her journey, Sindhu is still young and needs minor tweaks to win big. “She is improving, she still has time and she’s young at 23. By the next Olympics, if she knows what to do and sticks to plans, she can be one step higher to gold,” he said, adding that the problem was not in the 19-19 situation. “She’s under so much pressure with 1.2 billion people. Sometimes she wants to finish a match fast. But I think as soon as she answers the question ‘why am I in a 19-all scenario’, she’ll turn the corner. It’s about cutting down on the unforced errors before getting there and never reaching 19-19. She knows opponents will expect her to attack, so she uses that knowledge. It’ll click,” he assured. The most encouraging part of Kidambi Srikanth’s game – Hartono said, was that he had beaten most top players in the past. “He just needs to get consistent. He’s top quality,” he added.
Hartono said players from other parts of India too needed to believe that they could do it since support was swelling up across the board. “In my time, only help was run and skip. Now with gyms and all, there are short cuts to gaining speed and power. But mentally you should change your thinking like other countries – Japan and Thailand and be ready at 20,” he stressed.
“No excuses,” he ended.