Good Badminton

The shuttlecock travels at twice the speed of a Major League fastball

Players have only 60 seconds to rest after one reaches eleven points, then another 60 seconds between games. Otherwise, the matches are nonstop action on a miniature version of a tennis court with a five-foot-high net. Umpires don't let players dally more than a few seconds between points. Understandably the young tend to fare better. Of a thirtysomething player, Zarco remarks, "Son of a bitch. Usually by the time you're 28, 29, you're washed out."

During the Pan Am at Shula's Athletic Club, most of the courts, rubberized green jobs worth about $16,000 each and laid out on a parquet basketball floor, were populated by lithe, attractive, and, of course, young athletes. A few people in the upstairs gym overlooking the courts paused between dumbbell sets to gaze at the players as they sprinted, pivoted, and smashed shots at 200 miles per hour. It was a strangely bipolar blur of action seesawing between lunging feather-soft drops and leaping overhead slams that sent the goose-feathered shuttlecock screaming for mercy.

The players came from Austria, Peru, Finland, Suriname, Scotland, even Iran — more than twenty countries. Line judges and umpires were flown in from Jamaica, California, and Boston. The roster included Pedro Yang, an Olympian from Guatemala; the twentieth-ranked men's doubles team in the world; the number 42 women's singles player; and the number 30 men's singles player. Many of the globe's top competitors were in Japan for the Thomas Cup, one of badminton's grand slams.

The players didn't come to the Pan Am for prize money. There was none because there were no corporate sponsors. They didn't find celebrity here either — the gym's few dozen folding chairs held little more than players and coaches. In a physical early-round nail-biter, Daniel Orozco of Mexico beat Ignacio Arguelles of Peru. Only one person clapped: Orozco's coach.

The players were here to improve their rankings and to qualify for the world championships in Madrid at the end of the year. They were here to play the game they love. Some admitted they've been looking for an excuse to check out South Florida since they first watched Miami Vice as children.

At more than six feet tall, with lean muscles, piercing green eyes, bushy eyebrows, and a receding hairline, Kasper Oedum of Denmark, the tournament's top-seeded male player, is an unusual mix of über-athlete and regular guy. Oedum, age 27, seems perplexed that so few people would turn out for an international tournament. "That's sad," he observed dryly. In Denmark, badminton attracts crowds in the thousands and is third in popularity only to soccer and handball. Asked to explain his countrymen's fervor for handball, Oedum paused: "I have no idea."

Oedum practices at least four hours a day and coaches school clubs to supplement his $3000 to $4000 in yearly winnings. His main sponsor, a soda called Jolly Time, provides another $2500 or so. Still, Oedum says, he wouldn't trade badminton for its more high-profile racket sport, tennis. Tennis players are too uptight, he says, too cut-throat.

In town from Chicago, singles player Shannon Pohl can't quite explain the lure of badminton. Born into a tennis-crazed family, Pohl decided in high school she preferred the more intense exertion and sophisticated technique of badminton. After college, Pohl quit her first job, sold her car, and moved in with her parents to pursue her dream of being the world's top-ranked female player. At age 25, she travels the world, playing badminton and visiting friends she's met along the way, using grant money and sponsorships from Wilson Sporting Goods Company, various American Legion posts, a horse racetrack, and a hospital fitness center. Still, like most pro players, she struggles. "Right now I'm at about negative $20,000 for the year," Pohl says with a broad smile.

I might as well be at negative fifteen points in my game against Zarco when somehow I finally get a shot past him. I have a sneaking suspicion he let me have it so I could save face, but it still counts. I can't help but imagine that the women pros are stifling laughter as they warm up on adjacent courts for their afternoon matches. A few more quick rallies and our one-game match is over. Final score: 15-1. I make a beeline for the floor, where I stretch belatedly and nurse my wounds. Zarco offers encouragement, saying I hit well for a beginner.

Then, with a sly smile, he says, "I could have blanked you."

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