“This is a shuttlecock,” senior Alex Atkinson explains, before deftly tossing the small, feathered cone in the air and striking it aggressively with her racket. Aggression — that’s the key word in badminton. There is nothing dainty or delicate about this sport. The shuttle cuts through the air like a bullet, clearing the net and landing on the gym floor.
This is not the same sport you played when you were nine years old at grandma’s barbeque, barefoot and carefree, running through the backyard.
Here at UR, badminton players have their game faces on.
The Badminton Club represents one of the burgeoning club sports on campus, demonstrating the power and popularity of this under-the-radar racquet sport. Since its humble beginnings, the number of players in the club has grown considerably from its four founding members in 2003 to 30 members today. College undergrads and Rochester community members flock to the Goergen Athletic Center twice a week for intense three-hour practices, begging the question: What makes this backyard sport so darn popular?
Atkinson, this year’s club president, really doesn’t seem to know.
“I was 14 when I first started playing badminton,” she said. “My friends and I heard that there was a team, so we decided to try out …kind of as a joke. It’s really one of those sports that nobody takes seriously.”
But she took it seriously — seriously enough to make her high school team and commit to the sport for seven years.
With over 20 medals and trophies from tournaments in Rochester and the greater New York area, Atkinson is living proof that the Badminton Club is no joke.
Tall and lanky, she has the ideal body type for a badminton player ready to smash an overhead at the net. In addition to her Badminton Club presidency, she is also the president of UR’s club sports in general. This means it is her job to oversee all 36 club sports that the University has to offer, while still balancing a full course load, acing the GREs and horseback riding with the Equestrian Club every week. And, oh yeah, having a life.
With all that Atkinson juggles every day, it is clear that badminton remains a top priority, and part of her job as president is to shed light on this misunderstood sport.
Think about it — what do people really think when they hear about the Badminton Club?
“There are definitely a lot of guys that walk by our table at the activities fair and kind of chuckle,” Atkinson said. Then, attempting her best frat-boy-mocking-the-Badminton-Club voice, she said, “Oh, dude! Let’s sign up for the Badminton Club!’”
Sometimes, these boys will attend one or two practices before realizing that they have no future with the sport. Other times, they’re truly converted.
“There will always be people out there who aren’t open to changing their attitudes about the sport,” Atkinson said. “But sometimes, once people start playing, they realize that there’s really a strategy involved. You learn more about the sport and you become hooked.”
With that, she directed me to Michael Chung, a pre-med senior who never touched a shuttlecock before he came to college — the perfect example of a badminton convert.
“I really just joined on a whim,” Chung said.
We are seated at his immaculate, clean kitchen table in his tidy apartment while his roommate empties the dishwasher a few feet away.
“I had played tennis since I was in kindergarten, but when I got to college, I wanted to try something new.”
Tennis and badminton are often compared. Both sports use racquets of similar shape and apply the same principles: hitting a small object over a net to your opponent on the other side. But what really separates the two?
“Badminton is the fastest racquet sport,” Chung said. “You need twice the speed and stamina than tennis because the birdie can go as fast as 200 mph.”
Most people find this stat hard to believe, including Chung’s roommate, who nearly drops the coffee mug he is returning to the cupboard. For those of us who are unfamiliar with the sport, it is hard to believe. Tennis pro Andy Roddick set the record for the fastest serve at 155 miles-per-hour in 2004, making top headlines and nabbing him the No. 1 spot on sports reels. Badminton players can serve at the speed of NASCAR superstars, but how often do you see that highlight on ESPN?
Almost never. Chung and I visited the club’s Wednesday practice, watching from the sidelines. They set up three adjacent nets to allow maximum playtime for the 20 or so students who braved the night’s blizzard to practice. “I swear, nothing stops them from getting to the gym. I think some of them actually live here,” Atkinson joked during a water break.
Players darted across the court, feathers flying as the shuttles zip through the air.
“Maybe they’ll show badminton on TV during the Olympics, but it’s really much more popular in Asia than the U.S.,” Chung said while taking a well-deserved break from the action.
So popular, in fact, that China’s badminton superstar, Lin Dan (known as “Super Dan” by his adoring fans) is about as famous in China as LeBron James is in America, Nike sponsorship and all.
Why is it, then, that the U.S. hasn’t caught on to the popularity of this impressive sport? Perhaps people can’t shake the image of badminton at grandma’s barbeque, racquet in one hand and hotdog in the other. Or maybe tennis simply fills the void for those looking for their racquet sport-fix (and with players as good-looking as Maria Sharapova and Andy Roddick, who can argue?).
But while badminton’s stateside popularity still wanes in comparison to tennis, the UR Badminton Club isn’t the least bit discouraged — this much is clear after watching them dominate the courts at the gym.
“It feels good to know we’re leaving some kind of a mark on this campus,” Atkinson remarked following the end of practice (after completing her presidential duties of dismantling the nets and collecting the stray shuttlecocks scattered across the floor). A small smile spread across her face. “Our club makes people realize that badminton is a serious sport. When we put up posters for our tournaments it gets people thinking.”
Badminton may not gain popularity and fame across the U.S. overnight, but the UR Badminton Club is certainly trying to help spread the word.
Cohen is a member of
the class of 2011.