KUALA LUMPUR: Even before Lee Chong Wei versus Lin Dan, there was the epic rivalry between eight-time All-England champion Rudy Hartono and the late Datuk Punch Gunalan.
Yesterday, Indonesian great Hartono paid tribute to the man who always brought out the best in him, saying that Malaysia had lost a true legend.
Punch, who had won numerous titles and accolades, lost his six-month battle with liver cancer yesterday, leaving behind his wife of 41 years, Vijeya Kumari, and son Dr Roshan Gunalan. He was 68.
Punch, who traded in his mechanical engineering degree for a career as a badminton player and administrator, left behind a myriad of memories and a legacy of excellence on which the sport has prospered.
Hartono, the 1980 world champion, who turns 63 on Saturday, was gutted by the news of Punch’s demise.
“I’m truly very sad that he has passed away so soon. I have lost a friend,” said Rudy when contacted in Jakarta.
“My experience with him goes back a long way and I will never forget him. As a player, he was a fighter who never gave up until the last point.
“I remember vividly the 1974 All-England final against Punch, which I won in three games. The match was so tight. He almost denied me my seventh consecutive All-England title. But I appreciate the fight he gave me.
“That was one of my most difficult matches. I really had to dig deep into my reserves to win.”
That epic encounter is part of badminton lore and still features on YouTube. Punch took the first game 15-8 but Hartono staged a brilliant fightback to snatch the second 15-9 to force the rubber, which he won 15-10.
The keen rivalry on court, however, blossomed into a lasting friendship when Punch and Hartono served in the International Badminton Federation (IBF), now, known as the Badminton World Federation (BWF).
“He was such a live wire. There was never a dull moment with him. I last met Punch when he flew over to attend the launch of my autobiography in March last year. He didn’t look very fit but his presence gave me such joy.
“Malaysian badminton has lost one of their best sportsmen and a great administrator. I’m sorry that I’m unable to attend his funeral but my thoughts will be with his family,” added Rudy, who underwent coronoary bypass surgery in 2001 but is still involved in the sport as a consultant.
“As a friend, he was true and dependable. He was also a great motivator. What drove him was his passion for the game..
“He was an excellent administrator. I don’t know where he got all his ideas but he always came up with something new. I often came away mesmerised by his brilliance after each discussion.
“He was the brains behind the change of format in badminton that has made it such a success and one of the most watched sports on television. Of course, there were a few who resisted his ideas but he got his way because his arguments were always sound.”
Hartono hailed Punch as a perfect role model for sports administrators.
“He was a success because he knew his sport. Hopefully, his talent has been tapped by others,” said Hartono.
“What he has done for badminton is exemplary and should be emulated by others. I hope there will be more credible sports administrators in Malaysia like him. If not, I hope more will follow his footsteps.”
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