It was a show of great character

THE Indonesians created a record in China recently when they claimed the prestigious Thomas Cup, the symbol of supremacy for the men's Team event for the fifth time in a row bettering their own record of four successive victories between 1970 and 1979. Their successful run began in 1994 and they have remained unbeaten since then in this competition by retaining the titles in 1996,1998,2000 and 2002. In the earlier days this event was being played every three years and each tie consisted of nine matches including five singles and four doubles played over two days. This format was changed in 1984 when the International Badminton Federation (IBF) decided to make it a biannual affair and also reduce the matches from 9 to 5 which meant that each tie consisted of three singles and two doubles. The Indonesian monopoly in the seventies was broken by China when they dethroned the holders in 1982 after being admitted to the IBF in the previous year. Thus started one of the long time rivalries between the two traditional rivals, Indonesia and China which continues even today, the only difference being that a few other countries like Denmark, Korea and Malaysia have also joined the race for the top slot, making it that much more difficult for either Indonesia or China to win the title.

One of the special features of the Indonesians seems to be their ability to bring out the best when it matters and reserving their best for Thomas Cup. This factor alone has helped them remain on top for so long. While playing the Thomas Cup, even if there is an unexpected loss in either singles or doubles, it is invariably made up by some other players who rise to the occasion and deliver the goods. As an example throughout the Grand Prix season, this year Chinese players dominated the singles by winning a majority of titles. But, when it came to the crunch, Chinese faltered and did not even make it to the finals losing tamely to the Malaysians at the last four stage itself, though they were the favourites for the title this time. More so because the final rounds were being held in China for the first time and they had the advantage of playing in front of the home crowd. On the other hand, Indonesians were under tremendous pressure especially in the finals against Malaysia. They started disastrously losing the opening singles and were at one stage trailing 1-2. But once again their players showed great character and staged a remarkable recovery winning the last two matches to pip the Malaysians at the post. Thus the Malaysian dream - their 1992 feat of winning the prestigious Thomas Cup were shattered by the mighty Indonesians.

The other reason for the Indonesian domination of the men's team events has been their doubles strength. They have produced so many world-class combinations that in a way they are already 2-0 up even before the tie begins because of their superiority in doubles. Other countries like Korea, Malaysia, China, Denmark have produced a couple of world-class combinations but, have not been able to sustain them. On the contrary, Indonesia seems to be churning out doubles players by the dozen all of whom are world class. This leaves their singles players with an easy task of winning one of the three singles to wrap up a tie and with players of the calibre of Taufik Hidayat, Hendrawan, Marleve Mainaky and Buddi Santoso in their ranks, they have not found it difficult to deliver the goods as one of them would surely secure a point for the team.

A lot of credit for their superiority in paired events should go to their Doubles Coach Christian Hadinata, who himself was an excellent doubles player. He has been in charge of their doubles for the past several years ever since his retirement from the game in the 70s. Since then, he has produced so many world-class combinations that I would rate him as the best doubles coach the world has ever produced. If Indonesia has managed to retain their supremacy in men's team events, it is largely due to his untiring efforts.

China, on the other hand, have not exactly fared well in the men's team events. One of the reasons for this could be that their team is young and therefore too inexperienced to cope with the pressures of playing a tie like Thomas Cup. It is one thing to play well in a Grand Prix event but totally different to perform consistently in team matches under pressure. It is here that I feel the Chinese have erred by asking their top singles players to retire when they were still good enough to take part in team competitions like this. The very presence of at least one or two senior players in the squad would have made a difference to the moral of the team.

Their other weak link has been the doubles. Unlike Indonesia, who have the most balanced side, they depend too heavily on their singles and have not been able to develop a formidable doubles combination. In the recently concluded edition, both the Chinese pairs fared poorly losing most of their matches against Malaysia, Korea and Denmark thus putting an added strain on their singles players - a similar situation India finds itself in, though at a different level. China has not produced a world beating combination since the retirement of Li Yongbo and Tian Bingyi in the late 80s. This is indeed a little ironical since their chief coach happens to be former world champion Li Yongbo, who himself was a doubles specialist.

The Malaysians did well to reach the finals before going down 2-3 to Indonesia. They are on a come back trail under Coaches Indra Gunawan and Joo Bong Park. There was a change of guard at the top in Malaysia a couple of years back and things have started looking up for them since then. Compared to their performance in the previous edition in Kuala Lumpur two years back when they were knocked out at the preliminary stage itself, they surpassed all expectations and reached the finals. Most of their players are young and one can expect some good performances from them in the future, especially in the doubles.

As expected, Chinese women dominated the show completely. There was no doubt in anybody's mind that they would retain the Uber Cup. It was only a question of who would make it to the finals against them. Ultimately, Korea reached the finals before going down 1-3 to China.

The Asian domination of badminton continues. Amongst the Europeans only the Danish men and Dutch girls were able to offer some resistance. Danish girls were a big disappointment despite having Camilla Martin in their ranks. To conclude, unless the other Asian superpowers like China, Korea and Malaysia develop strong doubles pairs, there seems to be no threat to Indonesia as far as Thomas Cup is concerned. They will continue to rule the world.