Having surpassed their own expectations in recent years during their second innings together, Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan are heading to Tokyo 2020 free of the pressure that dogged them at their last Olympics.
The Indonesians had split after Rio 2016 and drifted apart, but after a year, came together again and rediscovered their magic. Now, in their second Olympics as a pair, and having won three world titles together, Ahsan and Setiawan have nothing left to prove, and can afford to not be overly concerned about what lies in store.
“We just want to keep our focus and prepare better and enjoy ourselves when we’re there. There will definitely be pressure. There will definitely be pressure. Perhaps at that time (Rio 2016) we could not rise above the pressure. Now, we are more relaxed. Indonesia have two pairs in men’s doubles and with that, it naturally affects our psychological condition. Having two pairs is far better than having just one competing at the Olympics,” said Setiawan.
His partner, who will be at his third straight Olympics, talked of revelling in the Olympic experience: “At the Olympics, anything can happen. I hope we can relish our performance at the Olympics. Hopefully we can show our capabilities and strategy. The most important thing is that we revel in the Olympic experience, work hard and do our prayers. As what Hendra said, we could not relieve the pressure that was on us (at previous Olympics). We tried to lift our levels. Our preparations were complete but the performances were affecting our confidence. It wasn’t stable. So now, we’re toughening our mental and physical strength and raising our preparations even higher, to the best that we can.”
The Indonesians had a strong start to 2020. After making the quarterfinals of the YONEX Thailand Open, they progressed to the semifinals the following week, and then contested the final of the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals.
“I thought it was a good performance,” says Ahsan. “The target was the semifinals. We got to the quarterfinals for the first tournament and we improved in the second tournament by getting to the semifinals. For the third we reached the final. I feel we played quite well. Obviously there were plenty of areas to improve. We got to see the strengths of the Chinese Taipei and Korean players. Their play has improved massively.”
The Indonesians are aware that Tokyo will present them with a totally different set of circumstances compared with what they have dealt with before.
“I think it’s a lot with the mental side of the sport. Whoever plays bravely and take risks, you will find success there,” says Setiawan.
“I don’t want to be overly ambitious,” adds his partner. “Just take it step by step. A medal will be the target. When we are there we have to take it step by step because from the start, anything can happen. The same that unfolded in 2016 could happen again. Even if we had won against pairs in the numerous tournaments, at the Olympics we can still lose. I feel anything is possible, so we need to be ready. Everyone will go there to win but I wouldn’t know what the atmosphere is because there might be no spectators and that might make the experience different.”
Irrespective of what unfolds, Ahsan and Setiawan’s journey to Tokyo has been a momentous one. Setiawan, at 36, and Ahsan, 33, have extended the boundaries of what was deemed possible. And neither is willing to call an end just yet to that journey.
“We didn’t expect to qualify for the Olympics this year,” said Ahsan. “I mean, we parted ways before coming back together again. To return to the top level again has not been easy but thank God, we proved that we could. It was a gradual process but still, we didn’t expect that we could reach the Olympics again. Beyond that, I don’t wish to speculate. As long as I’m strong enough I’ll keep playing.”