Mon, 29 Dec 2003

Badminton players face tougher task ahead

Primastuti Handayani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The year 2003 was definitely a gloomy year for the Indonesian badminton squad due to its poor achievements in international tournaments.

Taufik Hidayat, who had looked ready to become the country's best men's-singles player, lost his grip in the International Badminton Federation (IBF)-sanctioned tournaments by only winning one singles title at the Indonesia Open before his home-crowd in Batam, Riau province.

Other players, like Marlev Mainaky and Rony Agustinus, fared even worse, not reaching the finals in any of the men's singles tournaments they played.

Although Indonesia has dominated the men's doubles event for the last decade, the country's best duo of Candra Wijaya/Sigit Budiarto only collected a title at the All England.

The 1997 world champions, unfortunately bowed out to the Danish pair of Lars Paaske/Jonas Rasmussen in the World Championships final, and failed to collect another victory. After the event, they split up and Candra teamed up with Halim Heryanto, while Sigit partnered Tri Kusheryanto.

Compatriots Flandy Limpele/Eng Hian, however, managed to contribute another title from the Japan Open.

The result was far from satisfying, particularly with the hard task ahead. Next year, Indonesia will face the 2004 Thomas Cup men's team championship - to be staged at the Bung Karno Sports Complex in Senayan, Central Jakarta - and the Olympic Games in Athens.

The Thomas Cup has always been particularly significant for Indonesia, with the national team retaining the trophy for five consecutive times between, and a total of 21 times.

During the biennial event, team spirit usually soars, giving fanatical supporters the confidence that the national team will once again win -- although they perform poorly in individual tournaments.

But the shuttlers must work harder next year as other countries' young players, particularly the Chinese, have shown great improvement.

Next year, Hendrawan, the hero of the last three Thomas Cups, will no longer be playing for Indonesia. He resigned from the national squad early October due to prolonged injuries, and to the disappointment of the Badminton Association of Indonesia (PBSI).

As a senior player, Hendrawan -- the 2000 Sydney Olympics silver medalist and 2001 world champion -- had proven that he was the national squad's backbone. He was known to be reliable, as the most decisive player at the most critical moment, including his victory in the third men's singles event, when Indonesia and Malaysia tied 2-2 in last year's Thomas Cup final in Guangzhou, China.

Without Hendrawan, Taufik must deal with the pressure of becoming the backbone of the national squad.

Indonesia's second-stringer, Sony Dwi Kuncoro, emerged as a new hope for the country after retaining his title at the Asian Badminton Championships in Jakarta by defeating Taufik.

Recently, he grabbed gold medals at the 2003 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in the men's singles and men's team events in Vietnam.

Sony might not be on last year's Thomas Cup squad list, but he did join the team in a way, as a "laundry boy", whose job was to collect his seniors dirty clothing. On the way home, he was tasked with guarding the Thomas Cup.

His experience, watching the winning team at work, will surely boost his confidence when he joins the squad next year.

Speculation on the Thomas Cup goes hand-in-hand with commentary on the women's team championships the Uber Cup. But, with women's shuttlers twice failing to enter the semifinals, it is unlikely that they will do any better this year.

After Susy Susanti resigned in 1998 and Mia Audina later moved to the Netherlands, Indonesia does not have a single player good enough to boost the team to greater heights.

Next on the agenda is the biggest international sporting event, the Olympics. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Indonesian shuttlers won a gold in the men's doubles and two silvers for the men's singles and mixed doubles.

If PBSI wants to hold fast to its gold tradition, this seems possible in the men's doubles, with the biggest medal-chance compared to other events.

Badminton lovers might criticize PBSI for its athletes' poor form. However, critics should also address the officials and the government for their failure to develop the sport at the grass roots level.

PBSI must join with the Ministry of National Education to popularize badminton among students. The ministry, which incorporates the sport directorate general, must also provide facilities for students in rural areas, so that they too have the chance to play the sport.

PBSI must also work together with private sectors to organize more tournaments for clubs, students and children in all provinces.

An independent talent-scouting committee is also needed to supply the association with really talented young shuttlers that can be groomed to become international-level athletes.