The retirement of Liliyana Natsir earlier this year left a void in mixed doubles – not just for Indonesia, but for fans worldwide.
The 2016 Olympic and four-time world champion is now enjoying life outside the court after a career spanning 17 years. Natsir, who chose the place and time of her retirement – she was treated to a celebratory send-off at the Indonesia Masters in January – was at the Indonesia Open last month as a spectator. In a wide-ranging interview, she talks about her post-retirement life, advice for her partner Tontowi Ahmad, and the challenges facing Indonesia’s mixed doubles pairs.
You retired this January. Are you missing the thrill of competition?
I don’t really miss competing but I miss the environment of competitions. It felt different when I came (to the Indonesia Open). When I was an athlete, one week or one month before, I would start to feel nervous. We had intense preparations as we were playing in front of the home crowd. The only activity was moving from the hotel to the hall and to the training venue. Now the difference is that I’m more relaxed. I come to the hall to watch the players competing and also their preparations. I’m the same as any spectator.
How has your lifestyle changed, from being an elite athlete to a retired sportsperson?
Surely there are changes. When I was an athlete, I needed to be disciplined and responsible about my time management, diet and sleep. Now I feel free and relaxed. Previously as an athlete, our focus would be just on preparation, competing, returning home, conditioning… and the cycle would just continue.
I have been following Tontowi’s recent matches and tournaments. I feel he is good and he is able to become the leader in the combination and enable Winny to play calmly throughout the game. Tontowi and I spoke and he asked me to come in and provide some advice for Winny. I mentioned that mental preparation before the tournament is important and it would be too much interference if I spoke to Winny as it may cause her to feel pressure, and I advised him to be more supportive of Winny. Male and female feelings are a little different as female (players) are a little sensitive. So he will need to support and believe in her which allows her to be herself and enjoy herself and maybe play her very best. If you limit her to play in a certain way, based on her inexperience and young age, I’m concerned that she will be confused in her game. For now, it is best to be supportive.
In term of technique and tactics, the coaches will know best. Winny will need to learn to be confident and amp up her spirit on court.
What are your thoughts on the other Indonesian mixed doubles pairs?
Back when I was playing with Tontowi, the spectators’ focus was always on us, we had to be the ones to perform and it felt okay for the rest of the (Indonesian) pairs if they lost. Now with my retirement, the remaining pairs should have prepared for the attention because automatically the focus has changed. The best ranked pairs are Hafiz (Faizal)/Gloria (Widjaja) and (Praveen) Jordan/Melati (Oktavianti). Recently I watched Jordan/Melati and the pressure on them was tremendous. If the pressure increases and they are able to perform it would be really good. But based on their performance, it’s totally the opposite. Maybe their mindset was not to lose (at the Indonesia Open). At the same time, it means that they have potential to grow. Maybe the expectation from spectators and PBSI on Jordan/Melati was to perform well and the players also don’t want to lose. Maybe mentally they are not ready.
I had the same experience when I was partnering Tontowi. I wasn’t able to claim the hattrick at the Indonesia Open that I did at the All England. Then we evaluated our game and realised that mentally and tactically we were not well prepared. Maybe because while playing at home, we tended to be nervous and not in control. Maybe there was too much on our minds because a lot of families, relatives and friends were asking for tickets to watch the game. It’s true! When we were at overseas tournaments, our routine would be just hall and hotel. Players will need to learn how to interact and adapt with the environment.
So if Jordan/Melati and Hafiz/Gloria can learn from their experience and prepare towards Olympics 2020, which includes learning to evaluate their game, I’m confident they can improve and be better. It is not yet decided who will be Indonesia’s 1, 2 and 3 for the Olympics and there may be some surprises too.
What are the particular challenges of competing at the World Championships?
The opponents during the World Championships are the same as at any other tournament. It’s just that the World Championships is more prestigious which makes it different than the rest of the tournaments in terms of the feel of the tournament.
Many former players have turned coaches. Are you similarly contemplating a coaching role?
I spoke to (PBSI High Performance Director) Susi and she did ask me about my plans. I have achieved my highest level of performance and I retired. To become a coach it would be really stressful compared to being a player because as a coach I will need to plan the players’ training programme, jetlag, tournament performance, food intake, etc. My schedule was always packed with tournaments. Since I retired, I get to be more relaxed and enjoy the moment.