When mixed doubles specialist and twice world championship medallist Chris Adcock was asked about what are the positives he looks to take from this season’s Premier Badminton League, the 30-year-old spoke about the experience of training with Hendra Setiawan and the learnings he can bank upon.
“The biggest thing to happen this year is to have a quality player like Hendra Setiawan in your team. You can train with him, you can learn from him. We (he and his wife and mixed doubles partner Gabrielle) are obviously very experienced players but Hendra is obviously in a different world and amazing to watch,” he explained.
There is nothing really spectacular about the way Setiawan goes about playing badminton. He doesn’t really set the stage ablaze with the trick shots and acrobatics like the world no 1 pairing of Kevin Sukamuljo and Marcus Gideon or isn’t really known for his big-hitting prowess.
But one can hear a collective gasp from commentators, former and current players and even knowledgeable fans every time the 35-year-old turns the rallies around with his quality placements and quick interceptions. And it is the simplicity with which he executes those plans that makes him a special player.
There is an economy of movement in the way Setiawan goes about playing badminton. The racquet rarely moves a lot when he takes the shuttle early to execute the drives and literally glides on the court, making the game look simple in the process. When coupled with his ability to anticipate the opponent’s shots, it makes him extremely dangerous at the net and we saw that during the 2019 All England final.
The 35-year-old had suffered a calf injury in the semi-finals and was a doubtful starter in the summit clash. But once the match started, he rarely let any shuttle with a flatter trajectory pass him at the net and allowed his partner Mohammad Ahsan to use his booming smashes to force the Malaysian combination of Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik on the defensive.
In fact, the ‘Daddies’, as Setiawan and Ahsan are called on the circuit due to their combined age of 67, went on to win their third world championship title together in Basel last year and ended 2019 with a world ranking of 2.
Ask him about the style of play and Setiawan brushes aside any talk about natural talent with a disarming smile and insists that he works a lot on those skills.
“I am no longer young and need to maintain his stamina and strength throughout the match,” said Setiawan. “Ahsan and I work a lot on how we play and what we want to do on the court.”
The oldest world championship gold medallist in world badminton added: “It’s not easy because there are so many young players with speed and power. But they still make mistakes. So we must keep our shape and play tight.”
Setiawan, who along with Ahsan had played an important role in Bengaluru Raptors’ title triumph last year, has moved to Pune 7 Aces this season and is now helping teammate Chirag Shetty understand the nuances of the game.
The combination has played in all five of their team’s matches in the fifth season of the PBL, winning four of them, and the Indonesian does spend time talking to his younger partner between points, at times just to calm him down.
“We talk mostly about movement. Where he should be when I am at the net and how to move into position himself. The good part is they (Chirag and Satwiksairaj) are training in the Indonesian system and its easy to explain,” said Setiawan, who started playing badminton at the age of 7 and was selected for the national camp back in 2004.
He and Ahsan are no longer part of Indonesia’s national set up but the federation has made a special exemption for the world champions to train at the national centre as it helps the other doubles pairs to watch and learn from them.
The duo had parted ways at the start of the 2017 season following a drop in form and only came back together in 2018. They didn’t really set the circuit on fire in the first half of the year but went on to win the Singapore Open and qualified for the BWF World Tour Finals after semi-final runs on the European circuit.
But 2019 saw the pair win their second All England title and then the world championships. Now, Setiawan has set his eyes on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gold.
“In 2018, we just wanted to be back on the tour and were happy to play semis,” said the Indonesian. “But at the start of 2019, we discussed what we were playing for. We set our goals.”
“The highest point of my career was when (Markis) Kido and I won the gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I want to try and win that medal in Tokyo. We still need to concentrate on qualifying for Tokyo for now,” said Setiawan pointing out that there is another Indonesian pair of Fajar Alfian and Mohammad Ardianto also in the top eight in world rankings.
According to BWF’s qualification rules, a maximum of two pairs from each country can qualify for the Tokyo Games provided they are ranked in the top eight at the end of the qualification period.
The world No 1s Sukamuljo and Gideon are clearly the favourites for the first spot thanks to their consistent showing on the circuit which saw them win eight titles on the BWF World Tour last year. However, they are yet to win a medal at the World Championships and Setiawan puts that failure down to their age.
“The world championships and Olympics come with different pressure. I am sure they will learn to handle it,” he said.
Speaking about the Indian combination of Shetty and Satwik, Setiawan said they need a couple of more years to consistently win tournaments on the world tour. “The one area they definitely need to improve on is their defence.”
Apart from the skill set, anticipation is an important requirement while defending and it would be interesting to see how Shetty picks Setiawan’s brains to improve that aspect of his game.