The Rise And Fall Of American Badminton

Published May 24, 2021

The sport of Badminton is often taken as lightly as the lightweight of the racquet and the feathered or plastic shuttlecock. It is seen more as a fun backyard game to amuse young children and provide light exercise to grandma and grandpa — not as a serious competitive sport like baseball, football, soccer, or a similar racquet sport, called tennis!

Connecting Badminton with such Hollywood Icons of the 1930s as James Cagney, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, and Douglas Fairbanks is the perfect analogy to why Badminton is no longer in the heart or on the lips of 21st-century American households. 

Badminton and 1930’s ‘stars’ relegated to the memory! James Cagney the energetic hero of optimism during the economic hardship era known as the Great Depression.  Bette Davis, a non-conformist with a forceful demeanor, Ginger Rogers with a determined spirit that enabled her to succeed in the Hollywood film industry dominated primarily by males. Douglas Fairbanks, a genuinely friendly soul with an engaging smile, brought the crowds streaming through the theater doors! 

It is no wonder that when it was discovered that such Hollywood icons of the day say they play Badminton, America took notice?  Spurred, in part, by these legends of the big screen, the schools, YMCA’s, and badminton clubs boomed in 1930’s America! The rules and the sport’s regulations came together from the east to west coast with the 1936 formation of the American Badminton Association (ABA).  This organized group of individual badminton clubs brought all eyes to focus on the first National Championships of 1937. 

In 1938 the ABA became part of the IBF, International Badminton Federation.  Badminton’s competitive sport thrived from 1949 through 1967, winning 23 individual world championships for men and 3 women’s world team championships. Joe Alston, an FBI agent, made his claim to fame as a top male badminton player, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1955.

Badminton’s allure began to diminish in the 1970s, as the number of Badminton clubs and movies with Jimmy Cagney, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, and Douglas Fairbanks also declined.  

Badminton Anyone?

Tennis Anyone? This is the more common question of those holding racquets in one hand while standing near those grass, clay, or hard asphalt tennis courts found at the country club or public park. Badminton courts are usually found on grassy lawns or indoor courts. The objective in tennis is Game, Set, and Match! Each match composed of sets made up of games — each set is comprised of six games! With Badminton, a match, singles or doubles is 3 games with the best of 3 games being a win for the player or team.

The tennis scoring goes from ‘O’ (called love) to 15, 30, and 40. This scoring does not mean 40 actual points. 40 is 4 points.  The first point won is 15; the second point is 30, the third point is 40, and the next point score is the winning game point. A 40-40 tie is called a deuce, and a player has to win two straight points (the first point scored is called an advantage). In Badminton, the first side to attain 21 points wins a game.  A point is acquired on every serve, and to whatever side wins a rally.  The winning side serves first in the next game.  With a 20-20 tie, either side must win by two clear points to win the game; if a game reaches a 29 – 29 tie, the first side to get to 30 wins.

Tennis or badminton matches are played on a smooth court. As stated previously, the tennis court is usually grass, clay, or hard asphalt, while the badminton surface is a grassy lawn or played indoors. Tennis vs. badminton court dimensions does, however, differ. The singles Tennis court is 78′ x 27′ and doubles court 78′ x 36′. A badminton court for a singles game is significantly smaller at 44′ x 17′ and 44′ x 20′ for doubles.

On a quick look, it would appear it takes more stamina to play tennis. A tennis match takes approximately 3 hours to complete, compared to 1 hour and 16 minutes for Badminton. The racquet and feathered shuttlecock in Badminton is significantly lighter than that yellow tennis ball and tennis racquet. While the tennis ball is heavier, players get to bounce it before hitting, while the shuttlecock ‘birdie’ must be struck while it is in the air.  While a tennis game lasts longer, the shorter period of a badminton game requires the badminton player to move faster and jump higher to hit that light ‘birdie’ in the air back over the net.

We are not arguing that both Badminton and tennis provide their distinct athletic challenges, making each an exciting sport to observe! Baffled, however, are badminton athletes and fans that the American public has generally dismissed Badminton as mere ‘child play’ and relegated it to the backyard barbecue or picnic.

To explain that Badminton requires as much endurance as the more popular racquet sport of tennis, can sometimes seem to be an exercise of futility when facing a worldwide tennis fan base of one billion, the result of the impressive reporting by the American press corps. While we support an exercise of all types, we cannot allow ‘jumping to conclusions’ that Badminton is somehow a less formidable opponent in sports. Convincing the American tennis fans and press will require James Cagney’s energetic optimism, the non-conformity of a Bette Davis, the tenacity of a Ginger Rogers, and the social graciousness of a Douglas Fairbanks! 

It’s time to remember the glory of the past and bring it into the present! Badminton is not just for the backyard! It is a sport that provided world championships in 1977 via the 1934 International Badminton Federation. Badminton holds national tournament competitions such as the ‘All-England’ Championship and the famed International Men’s Tournament of the Thomas Cup, as well as the women’s team’s Uber Cup. Badminton became a full medal Olympic sport for men’s and women’s singles and doubles competition, and mixed doubles were introduced at the 1996 Olympic games.

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