That badminton is frequently squeezed in between charcoal-flavored hamburgers and homemade ice cream hardly dispels the game's pitty-pat image. And this image, realm badministon players will tell you, is the sport's major problem in the United States.
Two other racket sports, tennis and racquetball, have achieved new heights of popularity, while badminton holds on to just 10,000 or so serious players. Yet in his book "The Other Racquet Sports," Dick Squires calls badminton a sleeping giant. He contends that badminton has been banished to the backyard, its potentially widespread appeal overlooked.
Because the slightest breeze can disrupt the bird's flight, earnest competitors wouldn't think of playing outdoors, and even air-conditioning is scorned by some players. Therefore, the true sport, a game of touch, remains hidden indoors, played in gyms from October through April and year-round by the more serious minded.
Millions of recreational players, of course, associate the game with sagging nets and high-arched shots, but accomplished players find it more athletically demanding than any other racket discipline. In fact, it could be the fastest of the racket sports, according to Art Murtha, president of the New York area's Metropolitan Badminton Association. "By the time you finish your stroke," he says, "the bird is back at you. a rally requires one continuous movement."
Don Paup of George Washington University has studied the speed of the various racket sports and discovered the average flight time of the shuttlecock in men's singles to be just 0.95 seconds. In squash, 1.3 seconds separate shots between top competitors, 1.5 seconds in tennis and racquetball.
Though these figures are certainly revealing, a player must cover less ground in badminton than in tennis, which has a larger court. (A badminton court measures 20 X 44 feet, a tennis court 36 X 78 feet.) A smash in badminton, nonetheless, can travel about 100 m.p.h., then die suddenly as the bird's feathers spring open to create a parachute-like effect.
The player in top condition enjoys a distinct advantage because of the quick, darting movement badminton requires. It's estimated that in a typical three-game match, a player will run about a mile, make 350 sharp directional changes, and hit the bird more than 400 times. If the match lasts 45 minutes (an average lenght), the bird will actually be in flight approximately 20 minutes. By contrast, a 60-minute football game boils down to only about 14 minutes of play.
Used to badminton's perpetual motion, Murtha finds tennis "boringly slow." A clothing executive who works in Manhattan he says, "I could probably run halfway up the Empire State Building without taking a deep breath."
Even more appealing than badminton's physical benefits, however, may be its variety, Murtha adds. "Because the bird is light, you can change its direction with very little effort at the moment of impact," he explains. "This gives you many more options per stroke."
Badminton is essentially a very wristy game, one in which a "delayed wrist" is used to disguise the aim of shots until the last instant. This sort of technique is not always rapidly learned, and may have accounted for Bjorn Borg's miserable badminton showing in a made-for-TV championship bringing together the top players from the different racket sports. "He was incapable of hitting the bird from one end of the court to the other," Murtha remembers.
It should be pointed out that the badminton player in this event fared poorly , undoubtedly feeing ball.
The United States is far from a world power in the sport, which finds the Japanese and Indonesians carting home most of the international awards. Coaching, of the kind found in England, is almost nonexistent in this country, where most players learn by observing. If the sport can be said to have any American hotbeds, they are in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and on the West Coast.
Badminton needs promoting, and Murtha believes the best place to beat the drums is right in New York, where the sport flourished before World War II.He's approached Madison Square Garden about putting on an exhibition match at the half of a Knicks' basketball game and is prepared to set up a court in Grand Central Station if ever given the chance.
"Once people have seen we don't play garden-variety badminton, there's always thremendous interest," he observes. "They say, 'Gee, I'd like to do that."