Mohammad Ahsan loves disaster movies – the doomsday weep-fest ‘2012’, and the climate-change cataclysm ‘Day After Tomorrow.’ He thought he had seen it all on screen – till he came across India’s own mishap-maker B Sai Praneeth, his team-mate at Bengaluru Raptors. Sending three high shuttle lifts from Mumbai Rockets’ Sameer Verma – lollipops, if badminton had any – extravagantly yawning wide and one into the net, Praneeth would push the Premier Badminton League final into the fifth match.
Indonesians Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan are masters of team events. They don’t get rattled by singles players botching team matches. The Indonesian legends – two-time World Champions with Setiawan additionally being Olympic champion from Beijing 2008 – would beat back the masterful Lee Yong-dae and Kim Gi-Jung 15-13, 15-10 to win the battle of legends. Bengaluru, playing in front of a packed house of 3700, won the tie 4-3, with no one budging even after Indian singles players Kidambi Srikanth and Sameer Verma had won their respective matches.
Both the Koreans and Indonesian pairings can pin their prime to a decade ago – but both are attempting to qualify for the Tokyo Games and handed a masterclass on how to handle big-match situations.
“Pressure? No, you need to enjoy these battles,” Setiawan says, adding swiftly in a whisper, “You don’t actually enjoy it – you are a puddle of water inside, but you show as if you are enjoying,” he adds. “Confidence only comes from winning tournaments – that’s our advice to Indian pairings like Chirag-Satwik,” he adds.
“In tough situations, you don’t lose focus. In doubles, you can never lose focus. Confidence is very important. You have to keep trying till you die. When you make a mistake, you learn from it. You keep learning,” Setiawan says, adding there’s never time to mope. He counts Life of Pi as his favourite film – drawing heavily from the movie’s message of never giving up.
Ahsan started badminton in Central Java at seven, picking up the sport from his father who was a coach. Setiawan loved football in Palembang on Sumatra, but his father, also a coach, told him clearly that the only way he could be world champion was in badminton. Definitely not back then in football.
Hitting shuttle against the wall
They grew up hitting the shuttle against the wall with a racquet that weighed three times the normal badminton racquet. “Indonesians play attacking badminton. But we are taught to learn defence like worshipping a deity. Attack in badminton can be killed. Everybody knows how to attack, everybody can’t defend,” Setiawan, 34, says.
While their gym sessions are down to three times a week – mostly for preserving agility – Ahsan remembers running 40 km every week on the streets of Jakarta as part of physical conditioning. “You can’t get anywhere in badminton without running. I hated running, but if no physical (fitness), then no game,” he declares.
While Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty has beaten the Indonesians at the Asian Championship, the duo reckon the Indians are 2-3 years of experience away from going to the very top and winning consistently. In pressure situations, where the young Indians have been prised open by the top pairings of the world.
The two idolised Tony Gunawan – a doubles legend from Indonesia who was versatile. “He could win playing from front (at the net) and back. It’s a must,” Ahsan says, adding that all players should be prepared to defend any inch of the court. Coached by the immense Herry Iman Pierngadi, the two thrived in an atmosphere at the national team where quality oozed.
While Setiawan won his Olympic gold, the high point for the duo came at the 2015 World Championships at home at the cauldron of Istora Senayan. “We played at home, and won on our Independence Day,” Ahsan, 31, says. You win at Istora, you can win anywhere – the PBL final was right down the legends’ alley.
In 2013, they would win the world title in China. Ask them if Chinese refereeing bias bothers them. “No, no, no. We don’t leave any doubt,” Setiawan laughs. Rotating front and back is an ability they respect in each other, and are grateful for.
The biggest challenge for the pairing are the younger crop of players who’ve made them feel slower in comparison. Playing for Bengaluru, they made their smarts count.