On balmy evenings in Kolkata and Chennai, tiny bylanes come alive with the sound of a game that defies the usual gender-based segregation of sport. A net strung across two makeshift bamboo poles, 200-watt bulbs attached to a square wooden plank, a couple of racquets, a shuttlecock, and a game of badminton is on. Everyone gets a chance in this communal arena—from the 50-year-old housewife, the local electrician (who devised the lighting arrangements) and teenagers who otherwise find it uncool to be anywhere near their parents, to the college badminton champion who gives you a 10-point handicap.
Indians are crazy about badminton, not particularly as a sport, but as an entertaining and sporty outdoor recreation that anyone can participate in. We’ve grown up with sedately paced backyard badminton; where no rally lasts more than four shots, and no one tries to return anything that they can’t reach from a stationary position.
Explosive: Nehwal. Gurinder Osan/AP
But now we’re getting a taste of the real thing, courtesy Saina Nehwal. When she played (and lost) the quarter-finals at the Beijing Olympics, people realized how tense a game of badminton can get. There were lightning rallies, explosive cross-court movement, and devious drop-shots that came out of nowhere. Nehwal’s aggressive power play has turned Indian badminton on its head.
Not many people know that badminton is the fastest of all racquet sports, demanding fantastic reflexes and multi-directional agility. The record for the maximum speed of a badminton smash is 332 kmph (set by Chinese doubles expert Fu Haifeng in 2005). Compare that with the record for the fastest tennis stroke, US tennis star Andy Roddick’s serve that clocks in at 246 kmph.
India has another reason to love badminton—the modern version of the game was devised by British forces stationed in Pune during the middle of the 19th century. In fact, for a few years after it was invented, the game was known as “Poona”. It was rechristened by the Duke of Gloucester in 1873 after his mansion, Badminton House.