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A Sport for the Birdies

Badminton's Soaring Popularity on Display in Orange With Game's Elite Vying for U.S. Championship

September 11, 1997|MICHAEL G. WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Cousin Jimmy's badminton repertoire doesn't include the kind of "leaping smash shots" flying off rackets at 200 mph that were routine here Wednesday at the Hong Ta Shan U.S. National Badminton Championship.

The badminton most Americans know, played with flimsy gear found in those $19 play sets now gathering dust in garages, has almost nothing in common with the world-class play in this tournament.

Wielding tightly strung, 3 1/2-ounce rackets of exotic metals that resemble high-tech fly-swatters, internationally ranked players deftly skitter about an area one-quarter the size of a tennis court gracefully launching shuttlecocks.

No cheesy plastic birdies here. Assembled with the wing feathers plucked from white geese, the official shuttlecock weighs five ounces and streaks through the air.

"Only six or seven specific feathers from each wing can be used to make a shuttlecock," the U.S. Badminton Assn. notes, and "the left- or right-wing feathers cannot be mixed."

Attracting dozens of the world's elite players competing for $200,000 in prize money, including Denmark's Peter Rasmussen, the 1997 world champion, and China's Dong Jiong, who is ranked second, the weeklong championship was expected to draw more than a thousand spectators to the Orange County Badminton Club. The championship, sponsored by the Asian conglomerate Hong Ta Shan, concludes Saturday.

In contrast to the image of intense, aloof and well-guarded athletes at international tournaments of other sports, such as tennis, badminton's superstars are quite accessible.

One of America's top women players, Kathy Zimmerman, a lanky 24-year-old with large brown eyes, calmly chatted about the sport and her international experiences--just 30 minutes before meeting Jinga Han of China, the 11th-ranked player in the world.

"My family got me started when I was little and I was very successful at a young age playing at a club in Denver," said Zimmerman, the gold medalist at the 1995 Pan-American Games in Argentina and the American women's doubles national champion in 1995.

To boost her game, and hopefully her ranking on the world circuit, Zimmerman trains now with a badminton club in the German Bundesliga in Berlin, and regularly competes on the powerful European circuit.

"There is a tournament every weekend," she said, and her goal is to obtain a world ranking, which requires a strong finish in at least two international tournaments. Making it to the round of 16 is her best showing yet in the four times she's appeared in the U.S. championship.

She went on to lose her match Wednesday, 11-4 and 11-0.

Seeking to dispel the notion that badminton is a quaint game "played only for recreation while waiting for the barbecue" is Neil M. Cameron, director of tournaments for the International Badminton Federation.

A former match official and 40-year veteran of the sport, Cameron said badminton routinely draws thousands of screaming fans to the top international championships, such as the Indonesian Open.

"There, badminton is played in a bedlam of noise where the crowd cheers every power smash, much as they do at a football game here," Cameron said.

Versions of the sport have been played for centuries in Asia and India. The modern rules were written in the 1800s in England, at Badminton Manor, where the name stuck.

The sport's popularity is rapidly increasing. The IBF now recognizes some 135 badminton associations around the world.

Top-flight badminton competition, Cameron said, had one brief heyday in America, "shortly before and after World War II."

In October 1944, some 20,000 people packed New York's Madison Square Garden to see a match. The following April, MGM released the movie "Badminton." And in 1946, Hugh Forgie's "Badminton on Ice" show went on tour.

Over the years, Southern California has hosted the national championship several times, said Marc Whitney, official spokesman for the U.S. Badminton Assn.

At the 1947 national championship held in Los Angeles, the association's archives record that a man named Don Kerr competed "despite having only one leg."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Badminton Tournament at a Glance

* What: U.S. Open Badminton Championships

* When: Today-Saturday; quarterfinals, 4-10 p.m. today; semifinals, 5 p.m. Friday; finals, 4 p.m. Saturday

* Where: Orange County Badminton Club, 1432 N. Main St., Orange

* Cost: $5-$15 general admission; $25 for all-week pass

* Web site: http://www.ioc.net/~scba

* Information: (714) 639-6222

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