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It's no picnic

Beyond the backyard, badminton becomes complex and difficult

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Over the Fourth of July weekend, a lot of badminton was played in the Triangle. But it wasn't all the rinky-dink, post-barbecue, one-hand-holding-a-beer variety; some of the world's top juniors were also here, playing a much higher-caliber version of the game, as Badminton-RTP kicked off its annual clinic week.

Between last Sunday, July 5, and July 12, young athletes from Florida, Seattle and Canada are here in the Triangle for the nonprofit club's annual summer camp. The draw is the coaching services of Dennis Christensen, who currently heads Switzerland's national junior team. To keep the instruction and competition top-flight, he brought with him Kasper Odum, a former world top-20 player, and a squad of seven Swiss juniors to mix it up with the North Americans.

Christensen, a thick-set, ebullient Dane, is a sort of one-man badminton-exporting agent. Three years ago, he was sponsored by Yonex (the unrivaled No. 1 manufacturer of badminton equipment) to undertake a sort of North American barnstorming tour. He put in over 15,000 miles driving from LA through Texas, Florida, North Carolina, New York, Canada, Seattle and back to LA, hopping from club to club to promote the sport he loves. This is his third year back in the Triangle teaching clinics for Badminton-RTP, and it's clear why they keep inviting him back: His enthusiasm for the sport is infectious.

"In Denmark, badminton is the second most popular sport after soccer," he explains. "Out of six million people in the country, one million play badminton. My father and my grandfather played badminton." Watching his jovial, high-energy coaching style, it becomes apparent that in his case, living and breathing badminton is not so much a career choice as a fulfillment of destiny.

According to Sandeep Kalelkar, one of Badminton-RTP's directors, the nonprofit club has seen its rolls balloon from roughly 25 members 10 years ago to some 250 today, driven partly by increased immigration from parts of Asia, where badminton is hugely popular. With continued momentum, the organizers are hoping to secure enough public and private funding to establish a full-fledged badminton training center in the Triangle.

On Sunday, a free open clinic at Durham's Peak Fitness gave all comers the chance to benefit from Christensen's tutelage, including this reporter. A lifelong devotee of racquet sports, including tennis, table tennis and racquetball, I thought I'd pick up a few pointers and quickly achieve a minimal level of competence. Reader, it was not to be.

The first thing you learn when attending a clinic is that the habits you picked up in casual backyard games need to be unlearned before they seriously jeopardize any hope of improvement. Christensen started his lesson by demonstrating the various ways to grip the racquet during a game, explaining the advantages of each. He followed with short drills on the fundamentals of forehands and backhands, volleys and defensive digs.

Comparing my efforts with those of the more experienced competitors, I soon realized that it would take years of practice to even begin to compete with the more advanced players. High-level badminton is an amazingly fast game, and a split second of wasted movement will compromise your ability to react to a shuttlecock screaming toward you across the net. Odum and the highly ranked juniors on hand (including the top-ranked juniors doubles team in Canada, Nyl Yakura and Nathan Choi) displayed an impressive blend of speed, power and finesse. Their doubles matches almost appeared choreographed, as the players leapt and dove and covered the court in a tight synchrony that spoke to their shared, instantaneous response to incoming stimuli.

Which brings up another conspicuous difference between backyard badminton and the real thing—the aerobic component. "This is the best exercise of any sport I've played," panted club member Mike Koch, a gray-haired, heavily muscled gym rat who's probably played them all. "You're running and jumping and playing in all three dimensions. It's a total-body workout."

In spite of the obvious distance between the mastery on display and this reporter's own feeble first steps, badminton does have one consolation for the novice—the racquets are so thin and so light that even a rank beginner can smack the living hell out of the bird. It's surely a key to the game's appeal, that the physics and geometry involved allow you to do primal, cathartic violence to a blameless plug of cork and feathers, with an immensely satisfying "thwap!," and still keep it in play.

It's this very user-friendliness that also, perhaps, makes people assume the game is too easy to be taken seriously. But it's an Olympic sport with five events for men and women, and the stars in the sport are models of fitness, coordination and hair-trigger reflexes. In 2005, a Chinese doubles player named Fu Haifeng recorded the world's fastest shuttlecock smash, at 206 mph—50 mph faster than Andy Roddick's tennis serve.

It's unlikely that any of us will be smashing birdies faster than a speeding NASCAR vehicle, but by hosting clinics, providing facilities and developing junior talent, Badminton-RTP works to move the sport beyond its traditional low-intensity backyard setting.

Paul Knechtel, who coordinates Badminton-RTP's youth program and who's been building up the sport in the Triangle since he moved here from his native Canada in 1991, points with pride to the playing environment they've created at Peak Fitness. With the gym's cooperation, they installed special HVAC ceiling vents that don't blow the shuttlecock around, and the custom floor has lines for both badminton and basketball—though here, the badminton lines predominate, a rarity in the basketball-mad Tar Heel state. "This is probably the only place you'll see that in North Carolina," he notes.

Currently, the center of gravity of American badminton is in California, home to the Orange County Badminton Club, which has become the de facto national training center. But the board of Badminton-RTP envisions a world-class facility in the Triangle that will shift the balance of power eastward while fostering local youth development. "Badminton is something like the second- to fourth-most-played sport in the world," he says. "Not in North Carolina ... yet," he says, grinning.

Badminton-RTP will hold an exhibition match, open to the public, at the Bond Park Community Center in Cary at 11 a.m. on Friday, July 10, and a clinic for players of all skill levels (including novices) on Sunday, July 12 at Peak Fitness in Durham (3900 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd.) See www.badminton-rtp.com for more information.

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