Badminton Legend Tony Gunawan Reveals He Still Watches Games on YouTube
Badminton legend Tony Gunawan reflects on his career and the new generation of players
“Ugh! He shouldn’t be lifting there!”
“What?” I asked, startled.
“Oh sorry, I mean that guy shouldn’t be lifting so much, his defense isn’t that good,” he replied while watching a random men’s doubles game before his own match with his student at the 2018 Yonex International Challenge in Anaheim, California.
Despite being one of the best men’s doubles players of all time, 43-year-old semi-retired Tony Gunawan’s undying love for badminton is still as clear as day.
Fast forward a week later and we’re in the San Gabriel Valley Badminton Club in Pomona, California where Gunawan has been running GBA (Global Badminton Academy), his badminton academy since 2011.
He has his Yonex bag on one hand and Starbucks coffee on the other — plain coffee with sugar, his order every time. Funny enough, he didn’t used to drink coffee until he came to the U.S., where the habit started while he was attending school.
“Waking up early was never a problem for me,” Gunawan said to me. “But staying awake at school, especially in classes you don’t understand, that was the problem,” he said with a laugh.
Gunawan is a legend in the badminton community. Despite working with multiple partners, he became an Olympic gold medalist in 2000 with partner Candra Wijaya, a World Champion, the following year with Halim Haryanto, followed by another World Champion title in 2005 with Howard Bach when he represented the U.S.
It takes not only a high level of skill to achieve this, but a personality that can adapt to the quirks of different people — Gunawan possess all these qualities. Of all the people I’ve talked to before my interview, not a single person forgot to include “humility” when talking about Gunawan’s best attributes.
However, like most top sports stars, Gunawan is cursed. Despite all that he’s achieved, he seems to live life constantly looking for the next challenge. After winning pretty much all the major titles for his home country of Indonesia, Gunawan felt stuck: “What’s next after all this?”
In 2002, Gunawan moved to the U.S. to attend DeVry University to pursue a computer science degree. However, he couldn’t let go of the the sport he loved and soon found himself helping develop the United States national team.
“I was a little bit sad,” Gunawan said. “Watching my teammates and partner Candra still playing and winning tournaments, but this is my life choice to come to [America] — I never regret it.”
Not long after, he also became a player, having multiple partners and finding success in both local and national tournaments.
Out of everyone he worked with, it was Howard Bach, a player who emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was two years old, who worked best with Gunawan. They won a few lower level international tournaments, but their biggest achievement was in 2005, when they competed in the World Championships in Anaheim, California.
“It was going to be my last tournament,” Gunawan said.
The pair was seeded 13 in the tournament amongst the best players in the world, making them clear underdogs. Seeing that Gunawan no longer trained professionally while partnering with a virtually unknown player at the time, no one expected them to go far.
“Everyone of my teammates and top players, I believe they thought that my career was finished,” Gunawan said. “Then I partnered up with a U.S. player and we never won any major tournaments. Our highest world rank was 13.”
But then, the pair stunned the world by upsetting all the higher seeded competitors, essentially plowing their way into the final to the delight and shock of the U.S. crowd.
It couldn’t have been a more perfect story. The pair faced Indonesia, Gunawan’s home country, against Candra Wijaya, Gunawan’s old partner whom he won the Gold Medal with during the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and Sigit Budiarto, another top player at the time known for his front court play, swagger, and defensive skills. While people were optimistic, no one really expected the American pair to win against the much more experienced Indonesians. Surely all their wins before were simply a fluke, right?
Gunawan and Bach defeated the much-favored pair 15-11, 10-15, and 15-11 in front of a roaring crowd chanting “U.S.A” at the top of their lungs. The pair made history by giving the country its first World Championship Gold Medal.
“The spectators cheering and vibe gave me a lot of energy,” he said.
Putting egos aside, the defeated Indonesian team, along with the national coach, Christian Hadinata, rushed to congratulate their former compatriot — a clear indicator of just how much Gunawan still meant to them.
“Christian is like a father figure to me. Since I was on the national team, Coach Christian and Herry IP have always been there for me.”
“If training is at 7:30 a.m., he will come at 6:00 a.m. If I wake up early, I will always go and ask him to help me out, so our relationship is pretty close. I wouldn’t be here without them,” he added.
Despite the fame and accolades he’s achieved, Gunawan remains humble and credits everyone around him for helping him become one of the best in the world.
“I always tell myself and students: ‘Even if you’re the best, the best of yourself is really 70%. The people around you, your coach, teammates, parents, girlfriend, etc — all of them is 30%. Without their 30%, it’s not going to bring you to 100%. Be grateful for everyone,” he said
“I’m grateful for all my partners like Candra, Rexy, Halim, and Howard,” he said. “If someone told me I’m one of the strongest players, it’s because I have all the strongest coaches and partners.”
“But I also tell my students: ‘if you lose, don’t blame anyone, but yourself, because you are the one at 70%,'” he said with a laugh.
Shortly after his win, Howard Bach had to find a partner for the 2008 Olympics (Gunawan wasn’t a citizen yet making him not eligible to play), so Gunawan partnered with Danish pro Mathias Boe and played in the Denmark League for about a year.
Realizing that his life’s calling was under his nose all along, Gunawan dropped out of school in 2006, called up his old partner Candra Wijaya, who had just left the national team, and asked if he wanted to compete together again. Wijaya immediately said yes and the legendary pair was reunited.
“[Candra] is the one who taught me how to be strong mentally,” he said. “He’s a different kind of character, very tough mentally, as a partner and player, so I look up to him.”
The pair dominated the circuit just like old times for the next two years, with multiple Super Series titles and medals. Their results, despite their age and lack of practice, proves just how ahead of their time they were.
“Everyone is more focused on offense now, keeping the shuttle tight and flat,” Gunawan ssaid as he talks about how badminton as changed in the last three decades. “Whoever attacks wins because of the new point system, the speed and focus has increased by a bit.”
Gunawan became an American citizen in 2011, just in time to partner up with Howard Bach again for the 2012 Olympics. Unfortunately, they failed to bring in a medal. However, that didn’t matter. Gunawan found himself a new purpose through his GBA, his badminton academy which he founded that same year with his wife, Eti, a former Indonesian national player herself.
“I want to try to bring badminton in the U.S. to a bigger and higher level — that’s why we have this academy,” he said.
Aside from running his academy, Gunawan regularly goes to Japan to coach the Tonami team while still training himself to keep his skills sharp. He reveals that he stays in shape by running drills himself, even hitting a shuttlecock against the wall to this day.
He regularly watches tournaments that are live streamed on YouTube, following current stars like Hendra Setiawan, Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, and Lee Yong-dae to keep up-to-date with the badminton landscape. Even though he’s retired from professional play, his competitive fire hasn’t dwindled.
“I still see some tournaments on YouTube, when I see the pros play, I think ‘I can handle this and that’ but I know for sure my body, my reaction, my eyes will not be able to follow,” he said with a laugh.
When asked if he sees himself in any of the new generation of players, he picked Indonesian professional Hendra Setiawan, who won the Olympic Gold in Men’s Doubles in 2008.
“I think I see myself in Hendra Setiawan the most,” he said. “Hendra and I are very tactical, waiting and anticipating the next shot, thinking about what the opponent is going to do.”
Currently, the world’s #1 men’s doubles pair are Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Gideon Fernaldi of Indonesia, who have dominated the super series circuit for last two years and recently won the Malaysia Masters.
“Kevin is more explosive and aggressive, his reaction is very fast. He has incredible reaction and is very good at the front. But his reaction is one of a kind,” Gunawan says as he compares the difference between him and Sukamuljo.
While many may think he’s long retired by now, Gunawan still competes to this day. He mainly plays with his students to help them get better and experience high-level play. No matter how small the tournament, he gives off the same sportsmanship as he did in his heyday. Even if he were to lose in the winners bracket during local tournaments, he’s not better than going into the losers bracket to compete for the consolation prize.
“The purpose to play now is for my students to get more experience, no more for me,” Gunawan said.
GBA currently has over 100 students and 7 coaches including Gunawan himself. He also has two boys, Christopher and Leon, and still finds time to pick them up from school despite his busy schedule.
Gunawan’s hope is to utilize all his experience, connections, and skills to bring American badminton into the same level as Asian and European countries. However, something tells me that even if he were to achieve this goal, his next challenge will always include badminton in some capacity.
“I think badminton is in my blood,” Gunawan said as we wrapped up and he prepares to coach a student.
As we pack up to leave, Gunawan starts warming up his student on the court. To his left is a huge GBA logo on the wall with the following words he’s always lived by printed in bold on the bottom: