Interscholastically speaking, that’s the case with Manhattan Beach, whose local high school, Mira Costa, fields a varsity badminton team. They play against schools in towns scattered about Southern California, most of which are home to similar badminton enclaves. Not surprisingly, the Mira Costa High School team is comprised of kids who grew up playing at Manhattan Beach Badminton Club.
One such local product is Shawn Whong, who, while playing at Mira Costa was the 2014 California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section champion. He went on to college at UC-Santa Barbara, but since badminton is only played at the intramural level there, it can be assumed that his opportunities to play at higher levels had been limited. Still, he was here at the Adult Nationals, hoping for the best.
Which, it turns out, was pretty good.
As luck would have it, Whong’s very first match in the men’s singles draw turned out to be the #1 seed, Nicholas Waller, a lefty who had come in from Boston for the event. In the most recent USAB National Elite Rankings, Waller had appeared at #5. Whong…appeared not at all. He had dropped completely out of the rankings, something that can happen to you if you spend far more time in class than on court.
Ranked or not, it wasn’t long before everyone in the building noticed that despite his current state of rustiness, Whong was giving Waller a run for his ranking. Check out some of the action:
In a riveting opening game, the local boy won 21–16. Not too bad, taking a game from such an accomplished opponent. Reason to be proud. And prouder still when he methodically ground down his taller opponent to take the second game as well, 21–13. A straight-sets win against the top seed in the draw. Not a bad start.
In his next match Whong routed Meng-Yung Ong, 21–11, 21–15. And when he won the first game in his next match against Gabriel Villanueva, 21–12, it looked like he was headed for the finals. It wasn’t to be, though, as his fiery opponent came back to win the second and third games, 21–19 and 21–18, squeaking out a victory and ending the Cinderella run.
On the other side of the draw was…well, a case of what happens when pure talent meets pure physics.
As I’d watched players of varying sizes throughout the afternoon, it struck me how much of an advantage height is in badminton. I say this not so much from a vertical standpoint (although it is definitely helpful to be consistently hitting downward), but rather from a horizontal perspective. Taller people have longer arms, and thus a bigger wingspan. And since all it takes to propel the shuttlecock over the net is a flick of the wrist, if you can reach it, you can return it. Ergo, a player with longer arms can get much more court coverage per step than someone smaller.
Allow me to introduce Sittichai Viboonsin.
He first caught my eye via his etiquette. I noticed that on one rally, he wound up smashing the shuttlecock at rather close range right into the body of his opponent. To me that seemed strategically correct, given that it virtually guaranteed no return. But immediately after, he made a recognizable gesture of grace, placing his hands together and bowing slightly to his opponent, wordlessly apologizing. OK, I thought, this is what one does in badminton. But as time went by, I saw that others under the same circumstances did not extend the same courtesy. And when Viboonsin made the same gesture at the end of his match I figured, Maybe he’s just that kind of a person—stoic…and slightly mysterious.
Stoic for sure, because I only saw him exchange more than cursory words with one other player, who he appeared to know previously. And mysterious? In spades. I learned from fellow spectators that he was from Thailand, and other than that…nobody seemed to know. Which seemed odd to me, given that he was systematically destroying his competition.
“He’s got all the shots,” commented the knowledgeable gentleman seated next to me. And indeed he did. Eerily accurate, on two points clustered closely together he dropped long lob shots precisely in the back corner, right in front of where I was sitting. Each was just a few inches inside both the side and end lines. I’d be hard-pressed to replicate that from ten feet away—unimpeded—let alone from the other side of the net.
Completely intrigued, I spent the better part of two hours online later on, trying to piece together a profile of this obviously talented player—achieving only a modicum of success. Here’s what I was able to find out about the elusive Sittichai Viboonsin.
- On the USA Badminton Elite Nationals list his ranking appeared as “N/A,” due primarily to the fact that he was credited with having played just one tournament (the adidas Boston Open) in the preceding 12 months. It that event, he progressed to the doubles finals, and appeared to have done well in the singles also.
- While it was not easy to pin this down, I did eventually find out that he was born in September of 1986, making him 28 years old.
- According to alltournaments.co.uk, his best-ever ranking worldwide was 375th, as of August, 2010…but given what I’d seen, I was convinced that this was not accurate.
- In an old report from the 2008 World University Badminton Championships in which Team Thailand had earned its way into the finals vs. China, Viboonsin was mentioned as a part of the men’s singles delegation; but his name was singled out only because he was the sole player on the team to lose a match.
- He competed in singles and doubles in the 2004 IBF World Junior Championships, where he lost a lopsided quarter-final match to eventual champion Chen Jin.
- He also popped up in connection to UC-Davis and San Diego City College Badminton, but he didn’t appear to be a student at either place; it’s likely that he was simply playing in tournaments that they hosted.
- In at least one online post, he was listed with the country designation of “USA”, indicating emigration here from his native Thailand.
- And the last little tidbit…His nickname, which had been used quite liberally of late, is “Ice.” I probably could’ve guessed that, for from what I saw, he definitely transcended merely “cool” and “chill.”
What I do know for sure is this—Ice Viboonsin dispassionately and methodically plowed through the singles field at this Adult Nationals. In his first two matches, he gave up a total of just 20 points, and it wasn’t until the semi-finals that he finally lost his only game of the tournament. In the final, he dispatched Gabriel Villaneuva, 21–12 and 21–2.
If “dominant” is the appropriate word to describe Viboonsin’s performance in singles, then I’m not sure a word has been invented yet for what he and partner Holvy De Pauw were in the men’s doubles competition. Super-dominant? Ultra-dominant? The two men straight-setted the field all the way through the draw, giving up fewer than 13 points in all but one game. And that’s saying a lot, given that the championship matchup was against singles-finalist Villaneuva and Pratik Patel, the 6th ranked player in the country.
So to sum up Ice’s weekend: 2 titles, 0 sweat. The only question that remained was…why is this man seemingly so invisible?