Caught in the Nets

September 20, 2010
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In the United States, the only exposure you get to badminton is through amateur contests in your neighbors’ front yards, a far cry from a fast-paced professional tournament where the fans go wild at a drop of a hat.

As an American high school student, I have never expected badminton to be in the same league in terms of the excitement that the game can generate as, say, professional basketball, baseball or football.

My view of badminton has certainly changed over the course of last week.

The amount of energy produced in the arena at the Djarum Indonesia Open Super Series has opened my eyes to the real nature of this fast-paced sport that currently doesn’t receive much coverage in America.

With preciously few breaks in the action, badminton players have to be on their toes throughout the whole match.

In fact, I can’t think of a popular sport in America that captures this level of intensity in terms of both the pace of the game and the enthusiasm of the fans.

In my mind, volleyball in the only sport in America that comes closest to projecting badminton’s level of spirit, but it still comes up short. First of all, it is a team sport and there are many rallies in a row where one player might not touch the ball.

Second of all, each team can hit the ball up to three times before returning it. This slows down the game after a powerful hit.

In contrast, in badminton if one player smashes the shuttle, it has to be returned to the other team immediately. This removes the opportunity to slow the game down, often leaving the opponent defenseless.

I like to think of the game as a battle that resembles a sword fight. One player attacks while the other fends off his blows until he can get a chance to attack and land a strike.

Badminton is a game of precision. In contrast, most American sports are games of power, where it is common that the physically stronger athlete or team wins. I’ve learned that a tricky drop shot is just as effective as a smashing spike.

With the US players — who were all clearly of Asian descent — going down early, I got the opportunity to get involved with the Indonesian fans around me and partake in their excitement.

I caught myself cheering loudly for the Indonesian players and getting fired up when they did well and frustrated when they missed a shot. I also enjoyed taking part in the “Indonesia! Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!” chant.

One of my favorite fans at the tournament was an older gentleman whom I like to call the “shuttle-man.” Wearing an outfit adorned with shuttle-cocks and an Indonesian flag, he sat in the front row waving his flag and leading his fellow spectators in the chants.

I don’t know if I have ever seen such dedication in a fan at any of the professional sporting games I attended at home.

I loved hearing and seeing the girls chant “Simon! Simon!” during the epic match between Indonesians Simon Santoso and Taufik Hidayat.

And I don’t think I have ever heard a louder crowd than during Taufik’s unbelievable, yet disappointing, rally against Lee Chong Wei in the men’s singles finals. Taufik eventually ran out of gas and was obliterated by Lee.

The crowd at the stadium was a sea of red and white, and I drowned in it. Whenever an Indonesian athlete scored a point the spectators went wild, as if they were in a World Cup stadium 8,000 kilometers away in South Africa.

I witnessed the Indonesian fans’ growth in hostility toward the Polish players as they obnoxiously took their bows after repeatedly beating Indonesian teams.

I expected nothing but boos from the Indonesian spectators — I honestly would’ve thrown something at the Poles if I were a diehard Indonesian badminton fan — but was really surprised by what happened.

The Indonesian fans had the class to applaud the Polish players after their hard-fought match and cheered as they stepped onto the podium. Never in America would an opponent get such a response, even if they acted in the very best manner.

There would be a possibility that the athlete would get a free hotdog from a fan (a hotdog to the face, that is).

I will never forget this experience and I thank you, the people of Indonesia, for showing me your world and accepting me, the foreigner. I can say I that I will be forever grateful.

And in the future, I will surely be more tuned into badminton on television, especially during the London Olympics in 2012.

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