There are several preconceived notions about badminton, the most common being that it is merely an aristocratic pastime in which the participants agitate a cluster of goose feathers, a pleasure to indulge the idle rich. And lately, it has begun to consume the not-so-idle middle class. It is a game for warm Sunday afternoons in the backyards of America, played with sets from the supermarket, a family activity to while away the time as the barbecues char the hamburgers.
Badminton is all of that, to be sure. And that, say the people who play it seriously, is what has cruelly tarnished the image of an exquisite, artistic sport.
"We have been trying to get rid of the backyard image," said Mike Adams last week after he became the new U.S. amateur champion. "It is one of the fastest games. In the backyard, people pop it up, pop it up—and they think that's badminton. It's not.
"If we can just get people out to watch it. Even when we've got reporters to cover the sport, the interviews come off being funny. They can't get over the fact that it's a tough, competitive sport."
Badminton, removed from the pop-up backyard brand, is a game of speed and delicate finesse, of pirouettes and ferocious overhead slams, of deft services and floating ceiling skimmers, of feints and trickery. The physical and emotionally sapping characteristics of the game were manifested by Adams and others in the cheese-belt community of Waukesha, Wis., a bird slam from Milwaukee, where America's finest badminton athletes collected in the field house of the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha for the 35th national tournament. The tournament was co-sponsored by The Travelers insurance company and the American Badminton Association. Perhaps 300 spectators, many of them eliminated contestants, sat to watch on wooden basketball bleachers. Admission was free. Badminton, unhappily as far as the serious players go, remains the last sporting outpost of antimaterialism.
The atmosphere in the antiseptic gymnasium was quite different from that day on the estate of the Duke of Beaufort in Gloucestershire, England 102 years ago. The Duke gave a party, presumably in his backyard, and the sport was introduced to Western culture. It had been brought to England by some unknown Colonel Blimp from India where, under the name of poona, it had been a pastime of maharajas. The ducal holdings in Gloucestershire happened to be named Badminton.
At Waukesha, a long way and a long time from the Duke's digs in England, Adams, a 24-year-old transportation planner from Ann Arbor, Mich. with a skin-and-bones physique, met Gary Higgins, a 23-year-old free-spirited citizen from Alhambra, Calif., in the tournament final. Adams trains diligently to excel at badminton. "I practice a suicide drill," he said. "I use four courts. I run across two, then go backward. Then three, then four. All at full speed."
"Train?" asks Higgins. "Not me. I don't take the game seriously."
In the semis the unseeded and 13th-ranked Higgins had upset the No. 1 seed, Chris Kinard, a fellow Californian, 15-10, 5-15, 15-10. Adams, the No. 4 seed, beat second-ranked Chuck Oakley, also from California, 18-14, 15-12 in his side of the draw.
Badminton is a sociable sport. Adams spent the evening before the championship contest dancing the Bump in the motel disco. The next morning he was admittedly nervous for the title. Higgins had seriously celebrated his victory over Kinard with bacchanalian zeal. He, too, was in the disco, and stayed on after Adams left. In the morning, there were those among the California group who blathered unhappily about Higgins' cavalier behavior.