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John Harvard's Journal

Badminton’s Lightning Charm

Chasing a bird that flies indoors at 200 mph

March-April 2010

A badminton rally in progress at the Malkin Athletic Center.

A badminton rally in progress at the Malkin Athletic Center.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Harvard Badminton Club co-presidents Abraham Lin and Lauren Schumacher.

Harvard Badminton Club co-presidents Abraham Lin and Lauren Schumacher.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

In 1985, an astonishing time-motion study compared badminton with tennis. That year, Boris Becker defeated Kevin Curran in four sets for the Wimbledon tennis championship, and, amid far less fanfare, Han Jian of China bested Denmark’s Morten Frost in three sets of badminton at Calgary. The Wimbledon match lasted three hours and 18 minutes; the badminton contest took only one hour, 16 minutes. During the matches, the tennis ball was actually in play for a mere 18 minutes, as compared with 37 minutes for the badminton shuttlecock. Becker and Curran had 299 rallies and struck 1,004 shots; Jian and Frost had only 146 rallies but hit 1,972 shots, for an average of 13.5 per rally, about four times as many as the 3.4-shot average tennis point. And the distance covered by the players? Two miles in tennis, four miles in badminton.

This isn’t science; it’s a comparison of two matches that took place more than two decades ago, at the highest levels of competition. One reason badminton rallies last longer is that the court is smaller—a tennis doubles court covers roughly triple the area of its badminton counterpart. But these data should put to rest any notion that badminton is no more than an amusing game played at summer cookouts with a beer in one hand and a racquet in the other. In fact, the Harvard Badminton Club (HBC) directly confronts that laid-back image on its website (www.hcs.harvard.edu/badmintn), displaying the club’s Latin motto: Non est picnicum (“It’s no picnic”).

Actually, badminton has been an Olympic medal sport since 1992. Some call it the fastest, most demanding racquet sport in the world. Serious players compete indoors, in gymnasiums, as wind has marked effects on the duck- or goose-feathered shuttlecock (only recreational players use plastic ones). With different aerodynamic properties than a tennis or squash ball, the shuttlecock has been clocked at speeds as high as 262 miles per hour, though the feathers also drastically increase drag, decelerating the “bird” more rapidly than a ball. (The very best tennis servers crack the 140 mph or, very rarely, 150 mph barriers.) “It’s very fast,” says Abraham Lin ’10, co-president, with Lauren Schumacher ’10, of the HBC. “A rally of 10 to 20 shots might take less than a minute.” When the bird hits you at short range, he adds, “It has quite a bit of force. It stings for a while.”


 

Badminton matches are the best two out of three sets. The first player or doubles team to make 21 points wins a set; if the score reaches 20-20, one must win by two, and if it reaches 29-29, the next point is decisive. The sport uses rally scoring: every point served results in a point scored for one side. Unlike tennis, where the server has a decided advantage, or volleyball, where the receiving team has an edge, in badminton, server and receiver are on fairly even footing. “In tennis, the serve is a weapon,” Lin explains. “But in badminton, you’re serving underhand. You want to keep the serve low, just clearing the net, so opponents can’t attack it. To serve high and short is a telltale sign of not having been trained properly.”

As in tennis, Ping-Pong, and volleyball, there’s an offensive advantage in forcing opponents to hit up, enabling the attacking team to smash the shuttlecock to the floor and so end the point. Badminton players jump high to drive the bird earthward at steep angles. Men’s doubles, in particular, requires lightning reaction times, as defenders scramble to return such smashes. For related reasons, players switch racquets for doubles matches. “Doubles is a faster game,” Lin explains, “so to keep up with the other side, you need a faster, lighter racquet. It’s rare that you have that much time to react.”

Singles players tend to favor more head-heavy racquets, which produce greater power. But all badminton racquets are feather-light by the standards of other racquet sports. They range in weight from as little as 67 to 95 grams or so (2.4 to 3.4 ounces). Tennis sticks range from 269 to 354 grams, or 9.5 to 12.5 ounces, strung—about four times the heft. 

Badminton rules specify that the birds will fly with 16 feathers affixed to the cork base. Those feathers can wear out quickly, especially in high-level play: at the Olympics, a new bird may last only five minutes. A can of 12 feathered Yonex shuttlecocks sells for $19.95 at the Tennis & Squash shop in Harvard Square; a dozen tournament-grade birds runs $10 more. Racquets for badminton are roughly comparable to tennis racquets in price, ranging from  around $50 to nearly $300.

 

The HBC has about 100 members, more than half of whom are undergraduates, although graduate students and faculty and staff members are welcomed; there’s even instruction available for beginners. Saturdays and Sundays, there are practice sessions on two courts at the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) from 10 A.M. until 2 P.M.; a couple dozen players show up, and those not on court may hit the bird without a net.

The club’s website traces the history of the current HBC to 1987. At that time, as few as three players were showing up for games at the MAC, where the shuttlecock enthusiasts sometimes skirmished with basketball players over court time and space. In recent years, under the leadership of Cathy Cheng ’07, the club competed in the Northeast Intercollegiate Badminton League (NIBL), which included MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Tufts, Babson, and Brandeis. Harvard went 2-6 in its first NIBL year (2004-05), but the following season posted an 8-0 record to win the championship. 


 

“There’s no longer a formal league,” says Lin, though the national Intercollegiate Badminton Association is working to set up conferences and tournaments. Meanwhile, the HBC arranges friendly matches with neighboring colleges. This year, for the first time, the club is organizing an intramural tournament that will score points in the annual Straus Cup competition among the Houses; 150 to 200 undergraduates have expressed interest in coming out to bat the birdie.

In international badminton, China is the dominant nation: at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese athletes won gold medals in all badminton events except men’s and mixed doubles, where teams from Indonesia and South Korea, respectively, triumphed. Denmark has long been the European badminton power. The Harvard community mirrors the world in that “the likelihood of a badminton player being Asian is very high,” says Lin, smiling, though he notes that this year, a far more diverse group of players, perhaps only half from Asian backgrounds, have been coming out.

The sport’s origins, in fact, span Occident and Orient. Derived from the ancient game of battledore and shuttlecock, it was popularized by British army officers in mid-nineteenth-century India, and called Poonai for a time, after the garrison town of Poona. In 1873, the sport had its definitive launch at Badminton House in Gloucestershire, seat of the duke of Beaufort; the modern game takes its name from that venue. Today, the HBC is part of a global community of players. It may be no picnic, but they seem to be having a lot of fun.