When Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir won the All England mixed doubles title on Sunday, they didn’t just end a nine-year drought. They also renewed the country’s hope of continuing its Olympic gold medal tradition.
Indonesia has won at least one gold medal in each of the Games since badminton became a full Olympic sport in 1992. But the struggles of Indonesia’s shuttlers these past three years put that streak in doubt at this year’s Olympics in London.
Last year, of the 60 available titles at badminton’s top-tier tournaments, the Super Series, Indonesia won just two. Both came from Tontowi and Liliyana.
However, after winning at the Singapore Open last June, the pair went without a championship in the next 10 Super Series events until Sunday, when they beat Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter Juhl of Denmark, 21-17, 21-19, in the All England final.
It was the country’s first All England title since 2003 and the first mixed doubles title in the world’s oldest championship since Christian Hadinata and Imelda Wigoena won in 1979.
Liliyana said the championship gave them a shot of confidence that they could bring home the gold from London.
“This is an incredible achievement for us, winning the All England,” the 26-year-old shuttler said. “But we don’t want to get carried away with this victory because a tougher task lies ahead for us at the Olympics.”
Liliyana acknowledged that she and Tontowi were now the country’s biggest hope for Olympic gold. The All England was the third of 12 Super Series events this season, and so far the pair are the only Indonesians who have played in a final.
“After winning the All England, an Olympic gold would complete my career, because then I would have won every single major title available in badminton,” Liliyana said. “Now the pressure to bring home the gold is on us but we will use that as motivation.”
Liliyana has only been playing with Tontowi for two years, after ending a very successful partnership with Nova Widianto in late 2010.
During their seven years together, Nova and Liliyana dominated the world’s mixed doubles, winning 15 major titles, including two world championship titles. But they never won the All England or an Olympic gold medal.
They lost the 2008 All England final to China’s Zheng Bo and Gao Ling, and, in the same year, were beaten by Lee Yong-dae and Lee Hyo-jung of South Korea in the Olympic final in Beijing.
Nova withdrew from the national training camp in 2010, saying that age had taken its toll on him, prompting a hunt for a new partner for Liliyana. And then came Tontowi.
The 24-year-old previously played mixed doubles with Greysia Polii and Richi Puspita Dili and men’s doubles with Muhammad Rijal, but didn’t excel on the world stage. Mixed doubles coach Richard Mainaky, though, believed Tontowi had the potential to be a world-class shuttler.
“He just needed the right partner and he found it in Liliyana. She’s become a good mentor for him and they have become a great partnership,” Richard said. “I hope more [titles] will come from them.”
All England, which dates back to 1899, is often regarded as the most prestigious title in badminton. For Tontowi, it’s his biggest achievement so far.
“Honestly, I still can’t believe that I’ve won the All England. This is like the biggest tournament in the world,” he told the Indonesian Badminton Association (PBSI) Web site. “However, it’s not the end of our journey. The main target this year is still the Olympic gold medal and we’ll fight for that.”