From crashing out of the early rounds of World Superseries events, to winning the Olympic gold medal, it has been a roller-coaster season for Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir.
The Indonesians took home the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in Mixed Doubles at the end of a dream campaign, during which they did not drop a game in six matches. And yet, just a couple of months ago, the world No.2 pair were going through one of their worst phases in their career.
At the BCA Indonesia Open in June, in front of an expectant home crowd, the second seeds crashed out in the second round to a scratch Danish combination that included a Women’s Singles specialist. The next week was just as bad: a first-round loss to another Danish combination in the Xiamenair Australian Open.
With that kind of form, few would have backed Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir to come away from Rio with a medal, let alone the gold.
And when they were drawn to play their nemeses, China’s Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei in the semi-finals, their most ardent fans must have kissed their hopes goodbye – for the Indonesians hadn’t beaten the Chinese in their last eight encounters. The most bitter of these losses had been the one on home turf during the TOTAL BWF World Championships last year, when the Indonesians had faltered after having two match points. Since that loss, the lack of self-belief had been painfully evident with the Indonesian duo lurching from one disaster to another. Three first-round losses late last year was evidence of the crisis they found themselves in.
The semi-finals in Rio, however, completely overturned the script as Ahmad and Natsir demolished reigning champions Zhang and Zhao in straight games, before meting out the same treatment to their opponents in the final, Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying of Malaysia, for the gold medal.
What had spurred this dramatic shift in fortunes?
The most apparent change was in their on-court demeanour. Errors were accepted with gracious smiles and encouraging taps on shoulders, unlike on a few earlier occasions, when on-court quibbles were not uncommon.
Rexy Mainaky, PBSI’s High Performance Director, and a former gold medallist himself, said the communication between the two had improved after Ahmad and Natsir spent time working with a psychologist.
“They had to be honest with each other,” said Mainaky. “They had to come out with whatever was inside. They had to work with a psychologist… not just to control their feelings but to find solutions. It worked. The psychologist worked hard with them and with the coaches.
“Liliyana maybe forgot that Tontowi is a responsible person – he’s married and has a child — maybe she was thinking he’s still young, needs someone to take care of him. So the communication had to be positive. We worked hard, we talked to them.”
In the semi-final against Zhang and Zhao, the Indonesians, far from being intimidated, were nearly flawless in executing their game-plan.
The World Championships loss had stung, and it was that result that prompted the soul-searching that was to eventually result in the gold medal.
“Of course, to lose in the World Championships semi-final was hurtful. We were down in 2015,” recalled Natsir. “We consoled ourselves that it was okay to lose in the Superseries and we kept thinking of the Olympics. This is reward for all the hard work. Indonesia has a tradition of doing well at the Olympics. This is our gift to Indonesia for Independence Day.”