The Indonesian badminton legend Liliyana Natsir, who won two Olympic medals and four world titles, explains why she and Tontowi Ahmad formed such an effective duo.
For Liliyana Natsir, the secret to a successful sporting partnership is not to seek a perfect bond. Rather, it is to accept that every relationship has problems, and work past these.
The recently retired Indonesian badminton legend does not try to paint an idealistic picture when asked about her mixed doubles partnership with compatriot Tontowi Ahmad, which yielded Olympic gold at the Rio Games in 2016 as well as two world titles.
“In a partnership, there is always a bittersweet element,” Natsir told olympic.org. “There are always misunderstandings, of course, but we try to put our egos to one side in order to achieve the maximum result.
“The other thing is that when we lose, we tend to blame each other. But the most important thing is that we worked to understand each other, and having good communication on the court is a must.”
Indeed, their shared medal haul, which also includes three triumphs at the All England Open Championship – one of badminton’s most prestigious tournaments – shows how Natsir and Ahmad overcame to great effect the natural conflicts present within any joint venture.
Another key element, Natsir says, is good old-fashioned hard work and dedication. “What made us so successful was all that discipline and hard work – never giving up and always being hungry to be a champion,” she said.
“One of the key things about Tontowi is that he has a very good mentality – he does more training than others and he was so patient with me.”
When Natsir, now aged 33, retired in January this year, it was a national event in a badminton-mad country for which her sport has been the richest source of medals at the Olympic Games.
Thousands turned out for her emotional farewell at the Indonesia Masters, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo invited her to the presidential palace and said her retirement was “a great loss for the world”. He appointed her to a civil servant role charged with inspiring youngsters and helping nurture the next generation of Indonesian badminton players.
Natsir and Ahmad became national heroes during the Rio Games when they won gold on Indonesian Independence Day, securing the country’s seventh Olympic title in the sport.
The world No.3-ranked duo at the time, Natsir and Ahmad had shocked the top seeds and defending champions, Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei of China, in the semi-finals before triumphing 21-14 21-12 over Malaysian pair Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying in the final.
“It was an amazing sense of pride that Tontowi and I could present a gold medal from the Olympic Games in Rio to our nation, on our Independence Day,” Natsir recalls.“It was the best moment in my badminton life and I will never forget it. It was extraordinary.
“I believe that all athletes dream of winning an Olympic medal because the Olympic Games are the highest tournament and not many players can win it. If you win it, well, then you can become a legend.”
Natsir and Ahmad, who is still playing at 31, remain in regular contact, with Natsir finding time to offer her former playing partner advice amid her busy schedule.
“We are still friends even off the court,” she said. “Now and then he likes to share his stories with me. Tontowi and I always support each other, especially with Tontowi still being a badminton player.”
Their gold in Rio was Natsir’s second Olympic medal after she won mixed doubles silver at the Beijing 2008 Games with her previous partner Nova Widianto, with whom she also won two world titles.
It was a partnership that played a key role in driving her to sustained success, and no doubt helped her to be a nurturing senior partner when she later paired up with Ahmad.
“The Beijing Games were a happy and sad moment,” Natsir said. “I was happy as it was the first time that I took part in the Olympic Games, and I got silver, but the sad thing was we had a big chance to win it. But I was still grateful and believed in God’s plan.
“My partnership with Nova was really good. He was older than me, so he guided and helped me to play mixed doubles in the beginning. So Nova was one of the most important people in my career. He contributed a lot so I could win big tournaments, World Championships and even the Olympics.”