Smashing Comeback

Immigrants fuel a resurgence of badminton in America.


When Ajit Umrani left his career playing badminton for the state of Maharashtra and moved from Pune, India, to Southern Virginia in 2001, he knew he was leaving behind a life of feathers flying at nearly 200 mile per hour, six-hour daily practices, and constant challenges to his mental discipline. He recognized finding a place to play badminton in the U.S. would be tricky, but never guessed his attempts to start a badminton club at his college would be met with months of indifference and empty gyms, or that he would become a nationally ranked table tennis player in the process of finding a badminton substitute.

“Coming here nobody appreciated badminton,” lamented Umrani, who is now the number four ranked singles player in America. “I couldn’t pick up any girls by saying ‘Hey,’ I’m a badminton player’.”

Anil Nair: “It became a burning ambition to prove my dad and uncles wrong.”
Photo: Peter Teuben

Badminton, once popular among Americans in the 1930s-1950s, is being rediscovered thanks primarily to immigrants, many of whom are Indian. Indians consistently rank among the top 10 players in the country, including the top men’s singles player, Raju Rai, who represented the U.S. at the 2008 Beijing games.

These new generation of American players is making a mark internationally in a sport long dominated by China, Malaysia, South Korea, Indonesia and Denmark. In 2005 Howard Bach and Tony Gunawan brought the World Champion doubles title to the U.S. for the first time ever. Bach and his new partner, Bob Malaythong, made it to the quarter final round in men’s doubles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the best the United States has advanced in the games since badminton became an Olympic sport in 1992.

Membership in U.S.A. Badminton is up from 2,700 members in 1995 to 4,000 today. In 2006, in an effort to speed up badminton matches and make them more enjoyable to watch on television, the World Badminton Federation introduced a new rally scoring system. Previously games were played to 15 points and players could only win a point on their serve. Games now go to 21 points and players gain points when their opponent makes a mistake, regardless of who is serving. Although some local clubs and schools are still resistant to the change, badminton clubs are experiencing unprecedented growth nationwide.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where four years ago players competed for space in community colleges, now boasts nine clubs. The Northeast is experiencing similar resurgence. While her organization does not maintain official statistics, Beth Sopka, president of Northeast Badminton, estimates that nearly 30 percent of players in the Northeastern U.S. are of Indian descent. The percentage is not as high in other parts of the U.S., where East Asians, Europeans and Americans dominate, according to Sopka.

Ajit Umrani: “It’s a rush to go back out and play…. It’s a game of wit, power, and skill.”
Photo: Rajesh Kumar

“In the past five to eight years we’ve a lot more players playing,” said Prakash Gavri, president of Washington, D.C. Badminton. “The places to play have more than doubled in the past few years,” he added, and estimates that 60 percent of the players in his club are of Indian descent. The New York City badminton club started in 1996 with just 10 members now has over 200 players smashing throughout Manhattan and Queens, according to Veronica Wu, co-organizer of NYC Badminton with husband and former Spanish Olympic coach Chibing Wu.

Many club players are jumping into local tournament circuits. “More beginners and intermediate players want to play tournaments,” said Wu. “Before it was mostly advanced players who would enter the tournaments.” Participation doubled from 110-130 players two years ago to 240 at the D.C. Open this year, according to Gavri. The Boston Open, likewise, attracted a record 216 participants.

“Once I went to a couple of tournaments I realized they’re a lot of fun,” said Hiten Chadha, senior managing consultant at IBM in Fairfax, Virginia. “Above all, the badminton fraternity in India and the U.S. has introduced me to a lot of nice people with different ethnic backgrounds.”

Badminton enthusiasts also tout the health benefits of the sport. A statistical comparison between a 1985 World Championship badminton match and an All-England championship tennis calculated the match intensity of each by dividing the time the ball or shuttle was in flight by the length of the match. The analysis found the badminton match had an intensity of 48 percent, more than five times that of the tennis match, which had an intensity of nine percent.

“When I went back to India people were impressed that I could climb the seven hills of Tirupati in 1 hour and 40 minutes, while an average person would take more than three hours. The only reason I could do that is because of badminton,” said Srineel Jalagani, a software engineer at Credit Suisse in New York City. “It is double the workout of tennis, double the excitement of soccer, and in half the amount of time.”

Chadha agreed: “The sport has given me a good amount of physical fitness. It helped me recover from high blood pressure.”

Karishma Kollipara of Illinois, who just graduated from high school and has won three Illinois state championships and a record of 146 wins and one loss in her badminton career, said: “It’s a lot tougher than people think…and you have to make on the spot decisions. It’s a mental game too.”

Indian American badminton players say that even in India, where they grew up, badminton was overshadowed by cricket. “There is only one sport in India and that’s cricket,” said Vincent Lobo, who played for India and is now ranked number four in American men’s doubles with Anil Nair. India’s Dipankar Bhattacharya made it to the third round in the 1992 Olympics. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics Saina Nehwal advanced as far as the quarter finals. Currently India has five teams ranked in the top 50 in the world, according to the International Badminton Federation; the United States, by contrast, has three teams in the Top 50.

Raju Rai: “After the Olympics my next goal is to finish college with a degree in business

Indian players hit the world stage after Pullela Gopichand became the second Indian to win the prestigious All England tournament in 2001, after Prakash Padukone, who won the title in 1980. Gopichand was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sports honor in India. “That was the biggest boost for badminton,” recalled Umrani. “When that happened (badminton players) got a mini-celebrity status.”

Nevertheless, it is difficult for Indian badminton players to figure out ways to finance their athletic aspirations. Anil Nair remembers when he was faced with a life altering decision: train to make the Indian badminton team, or give up sports completely and study to become a doctor or engineer. He was 16 and had been playing badminton for four years. For him the decision was clear, but his father and uncles strongly disapproved of his choice. “The badminton bug had gotten to me…I decided my biggest goal was to play for India,” said Anil. “It became a burning ambition to prove my dad and uncles wrong.” And he did just that – being selected to play for India two years later and becoming the 1993 mixed doubles national champion with his partner Archana Deodhar.

Not everyone can make that choice. The focus on education consumes most young middle class Indians. “I stopped playing when I was 16,” said Karthick Krishnan, who played recreationally in a parking lot near his house in Madras when he was young. He now plays weekly at a club in New York City. Krishnan says his parents would not let him play, even recreationally when he entered the 11th standard: “Everything is about getting a good degree. It’s rare for someone to say ‘pursue your passion,'” said Nair.

Those who become international badminton competitors, like Nair’s doubles partner Vincent Lobo, who at one point ranked 35th in the world, usually can’t make a living off the prize money in badminton. When Gopichand won the All England Badminton Championships, the most prestigious badminton tournament, he received $10,000. By contrast, Goran Ivanisevic, who won the all England tennis tournament that same year, was awarded $700,000. In 2008 the total prize purse for the All England Badminton tournament was $200,000; the All England tennis tournament at Wimbledon boasted a prize purse of $23.5 million.

Consequently, badminton competitors must find jobs with companies that support their travel and training schedules. “In India no one is a professional,” said Lobo. “No matter what, you can’t live off the prize money.”

Nor in the United States either. Kamesh Puthur Loganathan, who played badminton for Tamil Nadu and moved to the U.S. in 2006: “You can figure out for yourself ‘if I win all tournaments in the U.S. this is what I’m going to make, but working in a hedge fund and this is what going to make.’ It’s easy to choose after that.”

In 2006 the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) slashed funding for USA Badminton from $1 million to $80,000 when it failed to meet its goals. That has meant some top players were forced to live with their coaches and find jobs to finance their playing. Olympian and 2005 World Champion Howard Bach works at a nearby Home Depot.

However, Indian American players are encouraged by the success of players from the community in the U.S. “I thought American badminton was non-existent…(but) there are so many badminton players from India – Sunil (Polineni), Kamesh (Basavaraju), Vincent (Lobo), and Anil (Nair),” said Sarada Jasti, a player for the Indian team who moved to the U.S. to study law at Cornell University in 2007. She was ranked number four in women’s singles in India when she left. Last November she won the Mid-Atlantic Open in Philadelphia, her first tournament since moving to the U.S.

Umrani is also able to play badminton again. He recently moved to the Boston area, which has several clubs. In the past year he won the men’s singles at the 2007 Charlotte Open in North Carolina, the 2007 Mid-Atlantic Open in Philadelphia, and the 2008 National Capital Open in Washington D.C. “It’s a rush to go back out and play…. Badminton is one of the most exhilarating sports today,” he says. “It’s a game of wit, power, and skill. A game that really gives you the opportunity to bring out the best in yourself.”

 Olympian Raju Rai

“Hakuna Matata.” yelled Raju Rai as he leapt five feet in the air and slammed a gym-rattling smash to win against world champion Tony Gunawan at the Boston Open. It was 2006, a year in which Rai faced tough obstacles that could have ended his career – a debilitating knee injury and a major reduction in funding to USA Badminton. Raju Rai, a Lawrenceville, Ga., native, who is half Indian and half German, talks about his journey to fulfill his lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics.

How did you get into badminton?

Ajit Umrani: “It’s a rush to go back out and play…. It’s a game of wit, power, and skill.”

My dad trained me from when I was five until I was 16 years old. He never had any real proper training. Sometimes I had coaches who I would train with for a couple of months, but my dad was the one with me everyday…. When I was really young I played with a small racquet and a balloon.

You spent some time training in Bangalore at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore. How is training in India different from in the U.S.?

In India you have better sparring and more people to spar with because they have so many high level players. Badminton is a lot bigger there. The quality of the drills is higher and the training is harder. Everyone is there just for badminton. They don’t have other daily life activities like going to school and going to work. Everyone is just focused on badminton.

How do you balance going to school with so much international training and competition?

I’m a part-time student right now. Some professors will understand about badminton, but most don’t. This year all my classes had to be online. After the Olympics my next goal is to finish college with a degree in business management.

How did USA Badminton’s recent budget cut from $1 million to $80,000 affect you?

It affected me very much. I have a huge amount of debt on my credit card. It’s frustrating. You dedicate your life to a sport for your country, you work so hard, and who knows, you work the next five years pay your expenses. After the Olympics I need to make some decisions (about my future).

You also recently overcame a knee injury.

I had knee surgery in 2006 and the doctor said it won’t really recover unless I have a more serious surgery. The pain is always there. I have to live with it and bear through it.

What does it take to be a top badminton competitor?

You need to be very quick, have fast reflexes, be a consistent player and be powerful. Those are all the tools you need to become a great athlete.

What is training for the Olympics like?

Most of the time I’m practicing with (fellow Olympians) Howard Bach and Eva (Lee) for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon…. On the court we do a lot of multi-feeding and multi-shuttle drills ‘ two-on-one and three-on-one. It puts more pressure on you.

What is the best thing about going to the Olympics?

I am most looking forward to the opening ceremony. It’s been a long road getting to this point with many ups and downs, but when it all comes down to it, it makes the experience that much more valuable.

– Emily V. Driscoll

 History of badminton

Competitive badminton is very different from the backyard variety. Badminton is the fastest racquet sport in which top players hit the shuttle at 200 miles per hour. The fastest tennis ball, by comparison, was recorded at 153 miles per hour. Badminton players run twice the distance in half the time that tennis players do in a match and they make nearly twice as many shots.

Anil Nair, a former member of the Indian badminton team who is currently ranked number four in men’s doubles in America, dismisses the notion that badminton is a backyard sport, “You might be benching 400 pounds, but I challenge you to last five minutes on the court.”

 Anil Nair. Photo: Rajesh Kumar

Badminton is believed to have originated in the 5th century B.C. in China. It’s modern beginnings, however, are traced to Pune, India, where British soldiers are thought to have learned the game from the local Indian population and taken it back to England in the 1870s. The Duke of Beaufort, in the town of Badminton, became an avid player and the sport acquired the town’s name and the British created standardized rules.

The first American badminton club was formed in 1878 in New York City and became a favorite past time of New York’s high society. The club boasted names like Astor, Roosevelt, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt among its members. The men wore tuxedos and women donned stylish long gowns. The game had no standardized rules and was played on a court shaped like an hourglass. One club member, Lyle Evans Mahan, caused a scandal by taking off his tuxedo coat during a match. In 1905 the United States adopted the English rules and a rectangular court.

In the 1940s and 50s Hollywood was attracted by the sport and movie stars, such as Joan Crawford, James Cagney and Ginger Rogers, enjoyed the game. It even developed as a competitive sport with sold out events staged at the Paramount in Los Angeles and Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Sports Illustrated featured badminton player Joe Alston on its cover in 1955. In the 1960s, however, as tennis grew in popularity in the United States, badminton was relegated to a backyard recreation.

– Emily V. Driscoll 

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