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Thread: Badders is about to get mean
07-20-2004, 12:11 AM #1
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Badders is about to get mean
I don't know where to put this so I'll put it here.
Badders is about to get mean
Badminton needs to get rid of its stuffy image. Gail Emms is the woman to freshen things up, says Will Buckley
Sunday July 18, 2004
Badmington has an image problem. There is something very Health and Efficiency about the sport. A game for naturists who can't hack volleyball. The option chosen by the drips at St Trinian's. The school sport for children who don't like sport and the game for adults who have difficulty making friends. Badminton's problem is that it possesses neither the glamour of tennis nor the intensity of table tennis.
Many of these prejudices probably arise from its history. In the late sixteenth century, Battledore, as it was then known, was a popular children's game. One hundred years on and the upper classes had just about got the hang of it. In this incarnation they didn't bother with a net but simply batted a ball back and forth.
A century or so passed until, in 1830, the Somerset family, with time lying heavy on their hands, managed a record 2,117 hits. Gradually it mutated into the sport that now has 50,000 registered club members in the UK and 200 million players worldwide. But badminton is, in this country at least, stuck in backwater.
Fortunately, away from the blazers who are always prominent in any sport organised along county lines, there are people trying to jazz things up a bit. Chief among them is Gail Emms, blonde and bouncy, ranked number four in the world with her mixed-doubles partner, Nathan Robertson, and an even-money chance for a medal at her first Olympics next month.
'I don't want to go around saying we're going to win,' she says, 'but realistically we should make the third-fourth place play-offs. But with a bit of luck, who knows? People can freeze, things happen.'
Emms, 27, started playing badminton at the age of three and by 'four or five was showing quite good hand-eye coordination'. The sporting genes come from her mother, who played football for England. 'She can still play keep-it-up for hours,' says Emms. Her father, meanwhile, 'did the chauffeuring, bless him'.
Emms progressed rapidly through the ranks, representing her country at every level, but was not quite good enough for Sydney 2000. 'I didn't have the edge. But watching everyone at Sydney I thought, right, I'm going to be there next time. Then Jo [Goode] got pregnant and that was my break.'
Like many British players Emms opted to play doubles. 'The singles game at the moment is so hard, stupidly hard. The Indonesians, Koreans and Chinese are playing a different game. A singles match can go on for an hour-and-a-half. It's ridiculous.'
Emms was away at a tournament in Malaysia contracting food poisoning during Wimbledon, but distance did not lessen any envy of Maria Sharapova.
'My ranking is as high as hers, I train just as hard, travel as much, but it's something I have to accept. I really wish we had a massive image shake-up. A lot of my friends come to see me play, thinking it's a village-hall game, and say, "Oh my God, I never realised it was like that.'"
'Like that' involves a shuttlecock travelling at more than 160mph and, mixed doubles being an essentially ungallant affair, the hardest smashes are directed at the women.
'Sometimes I come off with marks all over my body,' says Emms, 'where they have absolutely creamed it at you. They can jump so high and then turn their wrist at the last minute to create a ball of energy with this tremendous power output.'
Away from the court, Emms has given up reading Inspector Morse novels - 'I was becoming a little obsessive' - and taken up yoga because she can 'get a bit hyper'. Any benefit she might be deriving from her yoga may, however, be undermined by her treating it as a competitive sport. 'I'm just competitive at every single thing I do.'
If Robertson and Emms win, she says: 'I will get very very drunk and you'll find me flat on the floor with a Champagne bottle next to me.'
This is just the kind of picture that Jonathan Phillips would welcome. He is the founder of badders.com, the unofficial badminton website. Despite its name, which reeks of an 'anyone-for-badders?' mentality, this is far more adventurous than it might seem.
Phillips admits that the game did have a problem. 'In the days before sports centres, it was played in church halls and it was a place where people met and had sandwiches. It was very, very social, and they'd have a jolly hit and go home afterwards.'
To rid itself of this image, Phillips believes, badminton should shed its county backdrop and concentrate on towns. This, he believes, would help the game cash in on the 'tribalism that makes football a success'.
An FA Cup competition that pitted cities against each other and had a quick-fire format similar to Twenty20 cricket might have a chance of attracting a youthful audience and keeping it. Such a plan might make badminton fun rather than strange. And best of all, like football, there is a hate team in waiting, as the home of badminton is Milton Keynes. A tournament in which everyone is striving to beat Milton Keynes cannot fail to have spectator appeal.
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Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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