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No Racket over his Retirement

Selasa, 16 Agustus 2005 07:56:38
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Author: The Orange County Register

Tony Gunawan will soon retire from badminton the way he played it - with grace, humility, and as an Olympic medalist and international champion.

He will depart as 14-time Grand Slam singles champion Pete Sampras did in tennis, leaving a sport the way the truest of legends do.


But Americans, who lovingly embraced the shy Sampras when he shelved his racket to stay home with his wife and new baby, probably won't have equal strokes for the Indonesian-born Gunawan in what is likely his farewell, elite-level event, the International Badminton Federation World Championships, which begin today at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.

Most Orange County residents would probably not recognize Gunawan if he carried a Yonex racket and a shuttlecock, slung the 2000 Olympic gold medal around his neck and walked down the streets of his adopted hometown of Fullerton, sat beside them in computer classes at DeVry University or browsed half the day away at Fry's Electronics in Fountain Valley.

Had he prized the celebrity and the prolonged-ego-bath- goodbyes, Gunawan could have stayed in Indonesia, where he is mobbed at malls and grocery stores, all because he won his country a 2000 Olympic men's doubles gold medal with Candra Wijaya in a sport they value as much as Americans do the NFL.

He is a god, said U.S. singles player and Villa Park assistant coach Raju Rai, 22. When I heard he was coming here, I was shocked. Everyone in badminton knows Tony, but once you get outside (of the Orange County Badminton Club), he's just another badminton player in America.

Badminton, the second- most popular sport in the world behind soccer, has only niche following in the United States. It's a club sport by NCAA standards and garners just 4.7 million U.S. participants, according to a 2003 survey by the National Sporting Goods Association. (The same survey showed 4.9 million did pilates.)

A badminton star in the United States has less popularity than Lance Armstrong in outer space, and Gunawan knew that in 2001, when he and fiancee Eti Tantra - his Indonesian national teammate since age 10 - decided to move.

I came here because I wanted more from the rest of my life than badminton, said Gunawan, who partners with 2004 U.S. Olympian Howard Bach for their first doubles match at 9 tonight.

I was looking at turning 30, and I had spent 25 years playing the sport. Eti had a brother here and wanted to come to America. I wanted to get married, have a family, grow the sport and improve the rest of my life.

Tony and Eti married at the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino wedding chapel in Las Vegas in 2002.

No Elvises, he joked.

They moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Fullerton and joined the Orange County Badminton Club, where Tony trains and both coach.

Club founder Don Chew introduced the Gunawans to members who happily prepared meals and offered them advice. Fellow coach Ignatius Rusli gave them a refrigerator.

Eti Gunawan began working as a financial services professional at the Brea office of New York Life. Tony Gunawan, who had trained full time from 1993 to 2001, went back to school, first to learn English at Santa Ana College, then to study computer engineering at DeVry University and Westwood College.

That was scary for me, he said. I hadn't gone to school in more than 10 years, and here I was struggling to open a book and focus on something as complicated as computers. I needed challenges like badminton gave me.

His wife would come home at night to find he had disassembled a broken printer, taken apart their computer, rebuilt the entire system or devoted three hours and several chafed fingertips to playing the adventure game God of War on the Sony PlayStation 2.

He's so cute, and he's my best friend, so it's a little strange watching him make the adjustment to a different life, said Eti, 29.

Their first date was in a mall restaurant in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1999. She had never seen so Tony nervous - eyes darting, forehead beading with sweat.

Are you all right? she asked. He had forgotten his wallet and didn't know how to excuse himself to sprint back to the car to retrieve it.

Away from badminton, Tony is like a little boy, she said. Everything is new.

Growing up in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, his father, Budyanto, began teaching 5-year-old Tony and his older brother, Ferry, badminton fundamentals.

Tony Gunawan toiled through hours of footwork drills, stepping between right and left circles his father had drawn in chalk on the court. He worked on form, hitting a goosefeather shuttlecock suspended from the ceiling by a string.

For conditioning, he ran three times a week through the small East Java town of Tretes, on roads climbing the slopes of Mount Welirang. For strength, he put another badminton player on his back and climbed stairs.

Once a week, he joined a half-dozen friends to push his father's van for 100-meter stretches along the level pavement.

When Gunawan was 12, the Indonesia national team asked him to leave his family to train full time in Jakarta. He reluctantly left and sparred daily with national champions. He went onto win gold with Wijaya at the prestigious Taiwan Open, Japan Open, Indonesia Open and the Sydney Olympics.

While Wijaya remains in Indonesia training for the 2008 Olympics, Gunawan pairs with Bach, who lost in the second round with now-retired men's doubles partner Kevin Han in Athens last summer.

It's such an honor to meet you and get a chance to play with you, Bach told Gunawan in 2002 at the Orange County Badminton Club.

Gunawan bashfully smiled and said, I'm also honored to play with you.

They have been training five days a week on these courts, with Bach, 26, playing backcourt and learning from the forecourt master's touches, taps, drives, drops and finesse shots.

Tony has no bones; he's all cartilage, the way he can twist and get everything around him, Bach said. He's so consistent in his play, much like his emotions. He's the most humble guy I've ever met.

In practice, the world's No.13 doubles team played 2-on-3 for the challenge.

Just after Bach unloaded yet another ferocious smash, Gunawan bobbed and bent into position near the net. Holding the racket as delicately as a wand in conductor's hand, Gunawan swiftly stepped to the net, extended his arm and let the birdie brush off his racket's head and dive to the floor to end the rally.


Just the way he will retire.

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