Moment of the 26th Sea Games
By Bernard Tan, Member, SSC Council & Managing Director and President Commissioner, DBS Indonesia
As a Singaporean, I thought witnessing Joseph Schooling’s jaw dropping record breaking 200m butterfly swim in Palembang was the moment of the 26th SEA Games. Today, a young lady with a badminton racket did one better.
At the Istora Senayan this afternoon, five thousand patriotic Indonesians gathered to watch their country finish a sweep of all medals on the final day of the badminton competition. Make no mistake, badminton is larger than life in Indonesia, second only to soccer. Young and old, boys and girls play the sport across the archipelago and worship their badminton champions – many of whom have gone on to claim world titles. Indonesians expect to dominate this sport in South East Asia.
After two gold medals in the first two all Indonesian final fixtures, the crowd waited expectantly for the Women’s Singles Final. In Indonesia, no one keeps silent during a badminton match. It is more like a boxing match, where the crowd cheers the favourite with each swish of the racket and boos the opponent when she does likewise. There are horns, whistles and clappers – the noise of which is exacerbated by the compact nature of the Istora arena. When Fu Mingtian from Singapore walked in, the image I had was a poor gladiator entering a lion’s den.
Mingtian faced Adriyanti Firdasari, a taller and physically larger opponent from Indonesia. To the delight of the crowd, Firdasari dominated and claimed the first set easily at 14-21. Somehow, Mingtian found strength to return the favour, dominate and win the second set 21-12.
The third set was pure drama. In an incredible and at times unbelievable sequence of play, both players exchanged blows with the point difference never more than two. They were 2-2, 7-7, 11-11, 15-15 and incredibly 19-19. Some of the rallies were breathtaking, involving more than 10 exchanges. When one made a mistake, the other would incredibly let the other back in with one of her own. Firdasari’s name and cries of “In-do-ne-sia” rang around the stadium during rallies and between points, with the crowd trying to lift her to victory and to remind Mingtian how alone she was. Mingtian’s response was to slow down the game. Between serves, she was slightly more deliberate in everything she did. And still she kept Firdasari close. When Firdasari moved to 20-19 and match point, the arena waited in expectation to cheer another Indonesian win. In disbelief, they saw this little girl bring the set back yet again to level at 20-20.
Shock was on the faces of all when Mingtian brought the set to 21-20. Firdasari was saving match point for the first time. While Firdasari felt the weight of expectation on her shoulders, Mingtian looked ever more determined, feeding on the hostility of the crowd. I looked at Firdasari and I knew the impossible was about to happen. She cracked. Firdasari returned the shuttlecock to the net and fell to her knees. The few Singaporeans in the crowd jumped up, punching the air in unison to celebrate a most improbable win. In the stands, the head of the Indonesian badminton association graciously applauded and reached out to congratulate us. On the court, Mingtian just stood there and beamed. She could not believe what she had done.
Fu Mingtian, 21, became the first ever Singaporean to win a Woman’s single SEA Games Gold medal in badminton ever – a sport Singapore has never excelled in. The last time Singapore celebrated a badminton champion was 30 years ago, when Wong Shoon Keat was in his prime and she was not even born. Mingtian achieved this in an arena where almost all wanted her to lose. She had the mental strength to block the crowd out. In keeping toe to toe with her opponent, she demonstrated the strongest display of grit I have seen. And in winning the gold by the narrowest of margins she has delivered more than just glory to her country. She has written a story to inspire future generations of Singapore sportsmen and women for years to come.