Lya Ersalita sits on the floor catching her breath in the corner of the badminton hall at the Rudy Hartono training center at the Ragunan sports complex in South Jakarta. The white T-shirt that wraps her small frame is soaked through with sweat after an energetic set.
The 13-year-old has been practicing since she was 5, her fondness for the sport growing as she watched other people play. Her idol is Mia Audina, an Olympic silver medalist for Indonesia in 1996 who then went on to represent the Netherlands after she married a Dutch national and moved there.
“I love Mia. She has excellent technique. She is just so great,” Lya said. “I want to be like her.”
Lya’s dream seems to be just around the corner as she has already won more than 100 local tournaments. At the age of 8, Lya joined Jaya Raya, a badminton club funded by the Jakarta government, and is now one of the club’s top players. The club welcomes all comers, but tends to attract serious students of the sport. Talented young players live in a dormitory and attend school at the center.
“I just love badminton and have never been bored with it,” Lya said.
Another ambitious young player at the club is 14-year-old Ade Maghfiroh Khasanah, who joined two years ago.
“My father plays badminton and when I was younger I used to watch him play, until I decided to give it a shot and fell in love with it,” she said.
Ade initially registered with the club along with her younger brother, though he later dropped out, switching from badminton to futsal (indoor football).
“I love badminton, and although the training sometimes tires and bores me, I don’t think I will ever leave it,” she said.
For many years, badminton, or bulutangkis — which literally translates as “feather backhand” — has been the most popular sport in Indonesia. Like football, it is seen as fun, relatively cheap and easy to play — an everyday sport for people living in the city or small towns and villages.
Whenever there is a large badminton tournament in town, the excitement is palpable. People, young and old, come out of their houses to smash the shuttlecock in the street. Others are more innovative, marking the road with chalk to create makeshift courts.
“It is the number one sport in Indonesia, and through this we have had world-class achievements,” said Imelda Wiguna, 59, a veteran badminton player and senior coach at Jaya Raya.
Imelda said her love affair with badminton began as a child, when she watched other people playing the sport in her hometown of Slawi, Central Java, after the 1958 Thomas Cup championship. The Thomas Cup is a biannual international tournament that Indonesia has enjoyed great success in over the years.
“Whenever there is a badminton event, people play it everywhere,” Imelda said. “People are moved by the spirit [of the game].”
Most regions in the country have their own local badminton clubs that provide playing courts and training. Jakarta’s Jaya Raya is open to anyone who is interested and registration is open all year round, Imelda said.
“The number [of members] has been stable over the years, but a lot more people usually register after events like the Thomas Cup,” Imelda said.
She said many of the younger members were pushed toward the club by their parents, often with visions of their children going on to become badminton champs, but that the more casual players tended to drop out over time.
“A great number of children register as beginners at the club, but the number usually drops to only 35 percent [of the original number] at the next level,” Imelda said.
“There are a number of reasons why they drop out. First, they get bored if it was not their goal to learn the techniques and they enrolled just to have fun. Second, they get bored after attempting other sports [which they decide they like better]. And last, they drop out as they reach puberty and they start dating and are no longer so focused on the training.”
Although the training center is funded by the Jakarta administration, players who are in the lower ranks have to pay a fee when enrollment outstrips the budget. There are currently 36 students at the center, of whom 20 are fully funded.
“It is good in a way that these kids have to compete to get into the top positions so they won’t have to pay,” Imelda said. “The atmosphere of competition is very strong here.”
Sitting on an old chair at the training center is 40-year-old Fiana. Sweat is rolling down her forehead, she is whispering a prayer and her fingers are spinning the straps of the bag on her lap.
“That’s my daughter playing,” she said, pointing to a teenage girl on one of the courts. “She’s taking a test today to join the training center here.”
Fiana’s daughter, Zahra, joined a badminton club in their hometown of Kuningan, West Java, when she was 10.
Fiana said she decided to enroll Zahra in the club because she was not doing well at school.
“She was an OK student but that was it,” she said. “And she was not really confident in herself, so I thought I had to do something. I didn’t want her to grow up with no self-confidence.”
After enrolling in the local badminton club, Zahra started to feel better about herself and made a lot of friends. In addition to gaining self-confidence, Zahra made such impressive progress on the court that Fiana wanted to give her daughter the opportunity to develop her skills further.
After her husband died, Fiana and her two daughters moved to Jakarta to give Zahra the opportunity to forge a career as a professional player. She joined Jaya Raya in 2009.
“Two days before my husband died, he called and asked Zahra what she wanted to focus on, and when she answered ‘badminton’, my husband said, ‘You be good at it.’ ”
Imelda said some parents sent their children to badminton clubs in the hope that their children would become professional players and earn money from tournaments.
“But I guess it is only natural and it is the same as other parents sending their children to school so that they will have a good future,” Imelda said.
Nugroho, 39, the father of Shinta, a player at Jaya Raya, said his daughter first asked him if she could join a badminton club in their hometown of Malang, East Java, in 2006.
“She read information about the club on a leaflet posted at her elementary school,” Nugroho said.
Two years later, Shinta moved to Jakarta’s Jaya Raya on the recommendation of her local coach, who said it would give her a better chance of becoming a professional player.
“I’m so happy that she enrolled in the club, my wife and I really support her,” Nugroho said. “If she is good, she can take part in tournaments. If she gets money [from winning tournaments], it’s a bonus. But it’s not the most important thing. To know that she loves and enjoys what she does is more important.”
When asked what their ultimate goal was, most young players at the training centre said the same thing: “I want to be a world champion!”
Shinta waiting for training to begin.