Whether partnered by Nova Widianto or Tontowi Ahmad, the on-court prowess of Lilyana Natsir makes her a formidable foe.
At the London Olympics, opponents will again be wary of the experienced Indonesian who – in Mixed Doubles with Ahmad – carries her country’s best hopes for badminton glory.
Over the past decade the 26-year-old has had her nation’s fortunes on her racket in countless doubles duels, initially paired with Widianto and more recently with Ahmad. Natsir may not have reached the stardom of celebrated former men’s singles champion, Taufik Hidayat, but her immense strength of character and skill in negotiating the testy waters of mixed-doubles badminton with different partners has earned her respect at home and abroad.
This doubles specialist enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Widianto, winning two World Championships gold medals (2005 and 2007) and a silver at the Beijing Olympics four years ago. Widianto, a clever and deceptive player at the back, was well complemented by Natsir’s steely nerves and inventiveness at the net. The pair served Indonesian badminton admirably. However, towards the end of his career, Widianto began to lose his sting in attack and the team management decided to pair Natsir with the younger Tontowi Ahmad.
“Nova was getting old and did not have much power,” Natsir noted. “Tontowi is younger, so (he has) more power. They have different styles. Tontowi attacks more but Nova had very good technique.”
The new duo achieved instant success, lifting the Indonesia Open GP Gold title in October 2010. They went on a three-title streak the next year, winning the India Open Superseries, the Malaysia Open GP Gold and the Singapore Open Superseries. This year they became only the second Indonesian pair – after Christian Hadinata and Imelda Wiguna in 1979 – to win the Mixed Doubles at the All England Superseries Premier. The Swiss Open (GP Gold) and the India Open Superseries titles followed, giving them another hat-trick of major titles. They are now No.4 in the BWF rankings.
“Winning the All England title made me more confident with Tontowi,” said Natsir, who was previously ranked No.1 with Widianto. “I’m looking forward to the next big competition, the Olympics. I’m hoping to win the gold medal.”
Natsir is the senior partner in this new union. Given her experience in reading opponents and match situations, she is often seen instructing Ahmad who, for the most part, has lived up to expectations.
“With Nova, he had the experience and was the senior partner,” Lilayana observed. “But with Tontowi, I have to take charge as the senior.”
Having reached the Olympic final in Beijing, Natsir knows how tough the battle for the gold will be. Four years ago, she and Widianto fell to Koreans, Lee Yong Dae and Lee Hyo Jung, at the last hurdle. Natsir is not thinking that far ahead on this occasion, just contemplating their opening fixture.
“I want to think only about the first match. There’s a lot of pressure on us for the Olympics. Indonesians are looking to us to win the gold.”
Tontowi Ahmad nods affirmatively, well aware of the national anticipation building behind their Olympic campaign.
“This will be my first Olympic Games, so of course I’m nervous but looking at our results this year, especially at the All England, we’re confident we can do well.”