I had arrived courtside in time for the U.S. National Men’s Singles finals and was anxious to see elite badminton, pitting…OK, I had no clue who was pitted against who. I looked around for the scoreboard, thinking that maybe the names of the finalists would be listed there. No scoreboard. No presentation of player names or identities anywhere. I did notice that some of the competitors on other courts wore their name on the back of their jersey, but that was not the case with the athletes before me.
And then I heard The Voice.
In a perfect clipped British accent, an Indian gentlemen sitting in the referee’s chair introduced the contestants and called for play to commence. And after each point he updated us with the score in a formal manner befitting a National Championship. Now this was more like it.
It didn’t take long for me to notice that badminton plays just like tennis strategically—but with a couple of key differences. First of all, the badminton serve is the least powerful shot in the game, and in some matches at my maiden U.S. Nationals, it appeared to my untrained eye that having the serve was actually a disadvantage.
The rules require that the shuttlecock be fully displayed by the server, and indeed it was presented delicately with thumb and forefinger by these elite competitors; picture someone holding a dead mouse by the tail as they looked for a place to dispose of it. This was followed by a shot that, while I’m sure has a more formal name, I can best describe as a “dink” over the net into the opposite court’s serving area. This pretty much assured a return dink, in turn forcing the original server to hit an underhand shot—either another dink or a high lob—the latter of which basically sets up the opponent for a smash shot. Only then does the party truly start. At least that’s how I saw it, anyway.
Among the badminton cognoscenti, applause is apparently metered out, reserved only for long rallies and the truly spectacular save. These are appreciative fans, but they don’t hand the love out like candy. Initially it throws off the vague impression that nobody is paying any attention…until such point when everyone goes momentarily bonkers. I was actually startled the first couple of times this occurred, something that did not go unnoticed by my fellow onlookers. I’m not particularly proud of that.
The other major strategic difference between badminton and tennis is that, because of the hang time of an airborne shuttlecock, one has almost too much time to think about their return shot. While tennis is more or less an equal mix of planning and reacting, a badminton rally often allows its players enough response time to change their mind several times before pulling the trigger. Were it me playing, this would virtually guarantee over-thinking the shot and, more often than not, whiffing. I call this “knowing your limitations.”
The game plays fast, with teams scoring on each point played—as opposed to only on their serve. Initially gained by coin flip, the serve is earned, rather than rotated, from that point on. In that regard the sport is more like rally-style volleyball than tennis. Twenty-one points wins the game, and a match is best two of three games. There are few play stoppages, and the matches that I watched zipped right along. And it was fun to watch, as players alternated between knocking the bejesus out of the shuttlecock and deftly dropping shots just over the net. I could almost hear the wheels turning in each competitor’s head as they played, and that definitely drew me further into the action. I was genuinely disappointed to see each match end.
The closing event of the tournament and day was the Mixed Doubles Championship, which I thought to be an odd choice for a capstone event. My admittedly under-informed take on playing doubles, mixed or otherwise, is based on sketchy memories of badminton as it was taught to us in Longview Junior High School gym class, and basically boils down to this: there wasn’t enough surgical tape in all of North Central Connecticut to handle the head trauma that would have resulted from giving two kids carte blanche to swing rackets indiscriminately on the same side of the net.
But this was a much more evolved version of badminton doubles, and the team of Howard Bach and Eva Lee displayed seamless synchronicity in securing their fourth national title in five years, dispatching their rivals in straights sets. It seemed pretty clear that I was witnessing two legends of the sport.
The award ceremony for each class of competition was held immediately after the conclusion of the respective match, and was so low-key as to be almost incidental. These were national championships, mind you. I would’ve run a berserk victory lap, high-fiving everyone in the place. But that’s just me.
In reality, most people paid scant attention to the ceremonies. Consolation matches being played on adjoining courts didn’t even pause to recognize the crowning of champions. So I found it ironic against this backdrop of modesty that the trophies were almost as big as the competitors themselves. You win two of these XXXL monsters and you’re calling contractors about adding a room to the house.
I clearly have a lot more to learn about the subtleties of badminton.