Long after his early contemporaries turned coaches or faded into oblivion, Robert Mateusiak is still going strong. The 40-year-old Pole is on the cusp of his fifth Olympics and unintimidated at being in the toughest group in Mixed Doubles.
Mateusiak and Mixed Doubles partner Nadiezda Zieba came within a whisker of semi-final at the London Olympics. Holding match point against China’s Xu Chen/Ma Jin, the Poland duo missed the opportunity, falling 19-21 21-16 23-21 – a result that still rankles within Mateusiak.
Four years since that missed point, Mateusiak is back, looking sharp and confident, although he is in the toughest group of the competition, with Denmark’s Joachim Fischer Nielsen/Christinna Pedersen, China’s Xu Chen/Ma Jin and Great Britain’s Chris Adcock/Gabrielle Adcock. The secret to longevity? Enjoying the game and taking nothing for granted.
“I still enjoy the practise, maybe I’m not crazy like before, but now the quality of practice is more important than the quantity,” says Mateusiak.
“Of course, I try to be professional in whatever I do. Mentally, I’ve always tried to get good results, tried to beat top players. I enjoy the game. I enjoy playing with Nadia, we collaborate well on and off the court. I’m careful with what I eat. I work with the physio after practice. I use cryotherapy twice a year, I’ve been doing that for the last 15 years. I take care of everything. I stretch a lot before and after practice. Otherwise I could not have survived.”
The painful loss in London was followed by a couple of years away from the spotlight, as Zieba raised a family and Mateusiak attempted a partnership with Agnieszka Wojtkowska. Finally, a year ago, following Zieba’s hip surgery, the two got back together for a final shot at the Olympics – Mateusiak insists Rio will be his last.
“The break helped me a bit. It was a tough time, it was hard, but I still tried to do something, I tried to teach her (Wojtkowska). I still believed Nadia would be back for my last Olympics.”
Mateusiak shares, with Thailand’s Boonsak Ponsana, the honour of being at five Olympics. It has been an eventful journey.
“The last 16 years, I’ve lived from one Olympics to the next. It’s of course amazing. The first one, in Sydney 2000, I was young, it was big pressure. The next one, I was in Men’s Doubles with Michal Logosz, I was more ready for this kind of tournament. We had a tough draw, the first match was against Indonesia’s Tri Kusharjanto and Sigit Budiarto, and we actually beat them. In the second round, we played the Koreans Ha Tae Kwon and Kim Dong Moon, who went on to win the gold. So it was a tough draw for us.
“In Beijing, I played Mixed with Nadia and doubles with Logoz in doubles, and reached the quarterfinals in both.
“The last one in London, we lost after having match point against Xu Chen/Ma Jin in quarter-finals. We were so close to getting a medal. It was so hard for us. I watched that match again only after two years.
“My experiences have changed a lot. Till I came here, I didn’t feel anything, no pressure or nerves. Of course the Olympics is special, but earlier, we used to think of a medal all the time. During the Olympics, I always say, anything can happen. Again it’s a tough draw. The most interesting group, I should say. We will see.”
Having played alongside the legends of earlier eras, Mateusiak is in good position to talk about the evolution of the sport. He is happy at how it has evolved, with several countries now in a position to challenge for medals.
“The level of badminton is going up and up. From London onwards, in Mixed Doubles and Men’s Doubles, there are so many good pairs, it’s not just one or two or three. Maybe eight or 10, all of them capable of getting a medal. This is the big change. It wasn’t like that earlier.”