When the Taiwan Grand Prix Gold starts today, Liliyana Natsir will open a new chapter in her badminton career.
Longtime partner Nova Widianto, who has repeatedly said he is too old to compete at the highest level, asked the Indonesian Badminton Association (PBSI) to find another partner for Liliyana, and the association answered by sending Muhammad Rijal for a trial run in Taiwan.
“Just like Nova has been guiding me throughout my career, now I’m ready to be Rijal’s mentor,” Liliyana, 24, said on Tuesday.
Rijal and Liliyana’s first test is today’s first-round match against Terry Yeo and Li Yujia of Singapore at Hsingchuang Stadium.
Liliyana and Nova had been together since 2004 and became one of the best mixed doubles teams in the world. Together they won 13 tournaments, including world championship titles in 2005 and 2007.
But since winning the silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, their performances tailed off, with only one Super Series title this year, a victory in the Malaysia Open in January.
They lost to Denmark’s Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter Juhl in the world championship final in Hyderabad, India, earlier this month.
After the worlds, mixed doubles coach Richard Mainaky admitted that Nova was not as fast and strong as before. The PBSI started the search for Liliyana’s new partner with Rijal (23), Fran Kurniawan (24) and Tantowi Ahmad (21) the main candidates.
At first, the coach chose Tantowi to have a test run with Liliyana in Taiwan.
He switched to Rijal after Rijal’s partner, Debby Susanto, injured her back in training last week and could not go to the tournament.
Rijal has one decided advantage over the rest of the candidates.
He is the only one of the three to win a Super Series title, having claimed the Japan Open mixed doubles crown with Vita Marissa last year.
Rijal and Vita were seen as a promising pair to take over Nova and Liliyana’s spot, but Vita left the national team earlier this year when she and the PBSI could not agree on contract terms.
Before Vita, the Tangerang-born Rijal was partnered with Greysia Polii. Their best showing was a runner-up finish at the Swiss Open Super Series.
Rijal’s best achievement this year with Debby was the semifinals of the Philippine Open Grand Prix Gold and Vietnam International Challenge.
With Liliyana and Rijal still undergoing a try-out period, they will only compete together in second- and third-tier tournaments.
“We’ll assess their performance after the Taiwan tournament,” national team head coach Christian Hadinata said. “For Super Series tournaments, Liliyana will still play with Nova, at least until the end of this year, because they are still the best that we have.”