Every four years at the Olympics, Americans get a glimpse of the fastest and most athletically demanding racquet sport: badminton.
When casual viewers tune in, they are dazzled watching the shuttlecock routinely fly at over 200 mph. In 2013, while testing out new racket technology, Malaysia’s Tan Boon Hoeng set a new world record with a 306 mph smash.
And amazed that smashes can be returned with equal velocities or returned as pinpoint drop shots falling almost vertically on the other side of the net.
They also learn that, after soccer, badminton is the second most played sport in the world. Soccer has its nickname, “the beautiful game.” I call badminton the game sublime.
At high levels of play, the game sublime demands aerobic stamina, agility, strength, speed, and precision, and as a technical sport, good motor coordination and the development of sophisticated racquet movements.
I liken badminton to a mixture of baseball and hockey. Facing a 200 mph smash is like being in the batter’s box against Nolan Ryan. And returning and volleying shots is like pitching. Rearing back with an Aroldis Chapman heater aimed directly at the opponents neck. Or Warren Spahn and Greg Maddux-like change ups and curves disrupting opponents’ timing, painting the baseline and corners with precision. Or the net dink that deceives like Mariano Rivera’s slider where the bottom seems to fall off the baseball/shuttlecock.
Similar to hockey, badminton requires constant all-out exertion while making quick split second cuts. The expert badminton player handles his racquet much as the expert hockey skater handles his stick.
During Olympic season, the sport gets — alas — limited TV coverage, especially after the American players are eliminated. The New York Times did run In Rio Slum Hotbed of . . . Badminton, a splashy multipage story on the surge of interest in Brazil.
And the Times reported on Phillip Chew who hopes to win the first U.S. medal in Olympic competition.
The article also refers to the common American perception of badminton as a “picnic game.” The real badminton player winces at the ingrained image of the sport: played outdoors on grass, with a net too high or low, no boundary lines, with masses of players on each side, with those odious heavy red plastic tipped birdies that bear no resemblance to the aerodynamic precision of the actual goose feather shuttlecock.
Actually, over the decades, Rochester has had a rich badminton tradition with a small but passionate following who know the game sublime as anything but a picnic game.
The 30’s saw a surge in popularity, especially among the social elite. In 1932 — the Depression notwithstanding — according to the Society Magazine, 100 members of the Rochester “smart set” started an informal club that played in the Harley School Gymnasium.
By 1938, fans packed into the Genesee Valley Cub for its annual badminton invitational tournament. Even then badminton had to be defended: “it will lay you out cold if your not in great shape.”
In the late thirties and early 40’s, local amateurs battled in the Rochester Badminton Invitational.
Badminton’s prominence rose in 1944 when Kodak began sponsoring the Kodak Badminton Invitational Tournament. With matches in the Kodak Hall Auditorium and drawing players nationwide, the tournament lasted at least until 1973.
Perhaps the heyday of Rochester badminton was in the 80s and early 90s — when I and Mark Johns, now representing District 135 in the New York State Assembly, played our best “birds.”Like Mark, my game started in the backyard. In high school, Phil Ghyzel and I pruned back tree branches and used twine to mark off a noticeably non-regulation court. Along with my father and sometimes Dean, we wore down the lawn and vaguely learned the fundamentals of the game sublime. I spent hours playing by myself, hitting the birdie over the net then running back and forth under or around it. Soon we discovered that clubs at the University of Rochester and Kodak held matches. Buying sleek British 38, Xonex Boron 200 and Prince racquets and ordering Carlton feather shuttlecocks by mail, we played as often as we could, several times going to tournaments at SUNY Brockport.
My father ended up playing badminton into his 60s before moving to the less physically demanding table tennis. Playing regularly in Rochester and Rhode Island, I probably achieved “B Level” status — the equivalent of a pitcher whose fastball maxes out in the low-to-mid 80s.
After learning in his backyard how difficult and exciting badminton is, Mark also discovered the matches played Friday nights on the 9th floor of the Kodak Building on 343 State Street. The games — open to Kodak employees and friends — regularly drew crowds of a hundred or more.
Along with American players, Mark recalls players from India, Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Canada, England, Germany and Denmark — all countries where badminton is very popular. Sometimes we would go with the English guys after the matches to the Old Toad for well deserved pints.
A good athlete, Mark made himself into a top flight player, maybe one step below the premier players in the region. A group of about 30 – 40 — some more hardcore than others — traveled to tournaments in Brockport, Buffalo, Niagara Falls (playing in the dome near the river), Elmira, Keuka College and Mansfield College in Pennsylvania.
Mark was close with Bob Bryant, a prominent Brighton dentist (who incidentally bought my father’s Babe Ruth autograph for the then handsome sum of $500) and Sam Barnabas, father of Rajesh Barnabas, the recent Green Party county executive candidate.
Competitive games were also played at the Alexander Palestra at the UofR, Midtown Tennis Club, the Bally’s on Brighton-Henrietta Town Line Road and the Xerox Rec Center in Webster.
Unfortunately, the decline of Kodak and the eventual ending of the Friday night matches noticeably hurt Rochester badminton. A sense of community was lost. Ultimately, the games at Midtown only lasted a year and the ones at Bally’s less than five. By the time, Mark began to drift away from the game around 1988, the heyday was passing.
Still, Rochester badminton had its moment in the sun in 2000. Watched by my father and many others — both real fans and the curious — the Devlin Cup and Friendship Cup competitions were held at Midtown Plaza with junior teams from the U.S., Canada and Germany.
Nonetheless, there is room for optimism. Badminton is still firmly fixed in the NYS Physical Education curriculum. And Mark thinks the growing population in Rochester of Indians and Asians may spark a renaissance. Also, Mark says watching just a little Olympic badminton might entice people to play. And once on the court, they’ll get hooked just as he did.
And in 2003, badminton became an official club at the University of Rochester. In 2015, the club participated in the YONEX Northeast Collegiate Team Championships. And in 2007, RIT formed a badminton club.
And — just now right before publication deadline — Rajesh Barnabas (who you’ve met before) offers a lyrical account of his experience with the game sublime:
Badminton or shuttlecock is the most poetic of racquet sports. No other racquet sport involves so much fidelity and power. Badminton played at a high level is watching is watching two cats do battle it out, a minuet dance by stringed puppets. No other sport has the focal object (the birdie) soaring like a bird and diving on its prey.
I play a lot of sports in my life and no other involves/requires so much trickery, nuance and creativity. I would define it then more as a game than a pure sport.
I have been playing this magical sport since I could walk thanks to my father who continues to be a local ambassador of sorts for the game. Every Friday night was badminton night for our entire family through the winter. Cheaper court times were available and all the 20 to 30 or so diehards would trek through all sorts of Rochester weather to converge on the 9th floor of the Kodak headquarters building through the 1980s and 90s.
Today there is a significant league at Webster Rec. Center. There you will find mostly South Asians taking the court but all are welcome. And of course the backyard on a warm summer still night is always equal to the beautiful memories this game conjures.
Even better, Rajesh says new glow-in-the-dark LED birdies allows the Webster league to play for fun outdoors at night!I also spoke with longtime badminton aficionado and friend Vinod Agarwal who has played at a high level all over, especially at the India Community Center in Macedon. Frequently at the games we were treated to delicious Indian food.
Vinod reports games are still going strong at the Center, also estimating about 50 local players play competitively in the Rochester area.
Unfortunately, about five years ago, father time compelled Vinod to basically retire as he could not play anymore at the level he enjoyed.
Vinod did mention our friend Shawn Mithani — a strong player who dominated at Bally’s — had permanently moved to Toronto. Shawn had owned dry cleaning businesses in Rochester and Toronto — flying back and forth over Lake Ontario — but was now solely based in Toronto.
Shawn says there are so many badminton clubs in Toronto he can play whenever he wants, and suggested Vinod join him. While unrealistic, Vinod found the idea very tempting. Badminton every day! Maybe it’s never to late to unretire and move to Canada.
I played my last competitive badminton in the 1999 University of Rhode Island intramural tournament, coming in third and winning a t-shirt. But during the tournament, I realized my skills were eroding. Weak in the precision drop shot, my game over relied on quickness to the bird and an overhand power stroke. But having lost a few mph’s on my fastball and a couple of steps in my stride, I couldn’t keep up with the younger, faster players.
As clichéd as it sounds, I felt I couldn’t do the game sublime justice. So I retired from competitive play, t-shirt in hand. Ultimately, badminton is a young man’s game.
Still, as long as we aren’t using those odious heavy red plastic tipped birdies, I might on occasion play at a picnic with LED shuttlecocks.