Ahsan/Hendra Play it Cool Despite Hot Form

Sunday, August 11, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTON PHOTO

Among all the top contenders at the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2019, no pair has enjoyed as dramatic a resurgence as the ‘Daddies’ of Indonesian badminton – Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan.

Having split in the post-Rio 2016 period and spent over a year with different partners, the road seemed to have ended for the uniquely gifted pair. And when they did make their way back again together early last year, there was little to suggest that they would rediscover their halcyon days, although they did make three semifinals in the latter part of last season.

It came rather out of the blue, therefore, when they won the All England this March, signalling that they were far from done at the top-tier events.

Since then, they have strung together some results that suggest the veterans are very much in the running for another title at the TOTAL BWF World Championships. If that happens, Setiawan will have won his fourth title and Ahsan his third.

“Winning the All England gave us a lot of confidence, but I don’t want to think that we are going to win the World Championships again,” said Setiawan.

Following the All England victory, the Indonesians were quarterfinalists in Switzerland and Malaysia, had a title shot in Singapore, and won the New Zealand Open, before back-to-back finals in Indonesia and Japan on successive weeks.

Only the presence of their younger compatriots and the world’s best pair, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, prevented them from adding a title or two this season to their All England victory.

Despite their spectacular results this year, Ahsan preferred to display his characteristic reluctance to look too far ahead: “We don’t think about the World Championships, we prefer to think of each match as it comes. It’s not going to be easy for us as there are too many players who are very good.”

But it isn’t just the results that make Ahsan and Setiawan such a beloved pair among fans. They bring to the court a special craft, particularly at the front court, which stand out considering their seeming effortlessness and nearly placid on-court demeanour.

Never was this more apparent that in their last World Championships victory, at home in Jakarta. After surviving some testy early matches – they were nearly bounced out in the second round by Frenchmen Baptiste Careme and Ronan Labar – they showed a meditative calm in the final against Liu Xiaolong and Qiu Zihan. Their opponents were like deer caught in a vehicle’s headlights as Ahsan and Setiawan tied them up in knots. It’s a victory dear to their heart.

“We had so much support,” Ahsan recalls. “That gave us a lot of energy. We had a close match against the French in the second round, then against the Japanese (Kazuno/Yamada) in the third round as well. The first few matches were difficult. The World Championships is like that, it’s always difficult because everybody wants to win the title.

“For the final, we tried not to think about winning. We just tried to play our best. We didn’t put a special effort to be calm; it was just natural. The most memorable thing was listening to the Indonesian anthem on the podium.”

As one of the most experienced men’s doubles pairs around, and with time taking a toll, Ahsan and Setiawan have had to adapt. At the Indonesia Open, for instance, Ahsan had a hard time finding outright smash winners; the slower shuttle had robbed his smash of its sting. It was a tribute to improvisational abilities that they could still find a way past top pairs like Endo/Watanabe and Hoki/Kobayashi.

“We are not as fast as before,” Ahsan acknowledges. “So sometimes we can only plan for one point after another.”

If the season is any indication, Ahsan and Setiawan will be going to Basel with their arrows sharp and bows finely strung. And if they finish atop the podium at the end of the week, history would have been made – Setiawan will join Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng as the most successful men’s doubles player, while Ahsan would become the second-most successful Indonesian men’s doubles player, having moved ahead of Ricky Subagja who also has two titles.