On Sunday, I was still a bit sick but decided to push through it and try playing at the University of Sydney badminton club. One of the med school people that I play with, [JZ], said that he’d gone once last year, and seemed a bit reluctant that we go to play there because “they’re pretty strong.” Well, I went, and won something like 8/10 or 9/11 of my matches (losing the last two mostly because I was getting really tired), including where I played mixed doubles against male doubles. /shrug. They weren’t that tough.
It was nice to be able to play in this kind of environment though. The problem with [CM]’s group of badminton players is that they’re all friends with eachother. Not that having friends is a problem– that’s not what I mean. It’s just that although they all want to get better, there’s no one in the group who really has that “killing intent” that you get when you play among strangers. Basically, when they play against eachother, they’re too soft– and that kind of play doesn’t do much to prepare them for the real world of badminton.
Despite doing really well in the games I did manage to play, there was clearly an ‘upper crust’ of the club that I didn’t get to play much– about 8-10 (out of the 50 or so people at the gym in total) players or so who were really good. I unfortunately didn’t get to play them very much because I didn’t have a partner, and it’s hard to challenge the top dogs when you’re the odd man out. But alas, it’s not a big deal– they gave me a good run for my money. I had to dig up old techniques that I haven’t had to use in the casual badminton I’ve been playing lately, like some jump smashes, fei-bo (“flying step”), and other things… it was, overall, a very nostalgic feeling to activate these techniques.
The level at the Sydney club was just right for me to shake off a lot of the rust, but I did notice some differences. For one, my right shoulder is much stronger than it used to be, the last time I was playing badminton. I think the thing was that the last time I was playing competitively (probably around 2006), I was overusing my shoulder to the point where it was starting to show up as some form of chronic rotator cuff damage. Now, my shoulder has had a fair amount of time to heal up (yeah, 7 years is pretty good for a rehab period). Doing martial arts doesn’t use my shoulder in the same ways, and if anything, doing judo has probably helped me strengthen it somewhat.
On the other hand, I noticed that a lot of the footwork actually hurts the balls of my feet. In particular, using “flying step” to get those hard to reach birds is particularly taxing on my left foot– which I guess is a sign that my 7+ year old badminton shoes are probably due for retirement. I also found that a lot of the sharpness of my reflexes for cutting smashes and drives while right at the net have gone down, although that’s also partly because my MP77 is a singles “sledgehammer” racket that is a bit heavy for high speed doubles.
That said, playing on Sunday really got my blood pumping. It was fun to play under conditions where my body was more or less in good form– it was like rewinding the clock and stepping onto a court back in time when I first started playing badminton more seriously at Dawson College and eventually at the YMCA in Montreal Chinatown. While I’m now three decades old, the people at the club are all about the same age as I was when I started playing badminton. As such, they have youth on their side– incredible stamina, flexibility, and greed!
I’m being pretty frank when I say that as I am now, most of the players there outclass me in terms of sheer physical ability. However, what I definitely felt I had going for me were the things that I had developped over the years, both on and off courts– mental toughness, fighting spirit, analytical ability, and perhaps most importantly, sadism.
That last part there is what I mean by killing intent– it’s a side of me that I can’t use when playing friendly matches against friends because, as much as I critisize others for being too soft, I am the same– I don’t play [CM] and her friends the way I do strangers. So being in ennemy territory? It’s a nice feeling– because it’s a dojo bust, and you don’t care what casualties get in your way. It’s a delicious feeling when both of your opponents stumble to their knees because they completely misjudged a drop shot when they thought it would be an attack clear. It’s delicious when you give someone the smash, just to do a light counter to the net because you know that their feet won’t even be on the ground yet.
Yes, I know, I’m a terrible person for picking on people who are less experienced than I am, and I am getting a little big headed from the experience– but sue me. I think I’ve earned the right to savour this sort of success, given how much I used to suffer for badminton ten years ago.
Perhaps on some level, this is why I enjoy shonen tales so much. I know I keep bitching about how classic animes like Naruto, Bleach and Hajime no Ippo shaped my way of approaching challenges– but even before that, there was Ranma 1/2, and if nothing else, Ranma was about the madness of adapting to constant challenges. It was about suffering bitter defeats and trying desparately to figure out what could be done to get revenge.
I remember when I first started trying to play badminton seriously, there were so many things I was bad at. Actually, to put it more succinctly– there was nothing I was good at, except that I had a high tolerance for nausea from running my cardio to the limits. I hit backhand shots two handed (like tennis). I ran from corner to corner as if I was on the track team. I did net shots two handed as well, because I couldn’t control my racket well enough one handed. But through years of it– and I mean, years of being beaten, and winning, only to find there were always people stronger, and that every division of competition I ever succeded at had another higher level– I just learned some tricks along the way. I remember the great joys of winning, but I very much also remember the great pains of losing– especially when I was captaining my RsM team.
It is, without a doubt, a nice feeling that I have come so far in this sport, even if it’s just a modest amount compared to really serious players. I guess I’m just happy that I started off as a total nobody who nobody at the courts would give the time of day to to who I am now– which is the guy with the outdated racket (my 77 is considered vintage now for sure, compared to new racket technology), the ugly shoes (out of style by todays standards, even if so much of them weren’t scuffed right off), the knee brace, elbow brace, wrist brace and headband that is kicking the asses of people five or ten years younger than me.
It’s a good feeling. During some of the matches, I found that the hostility of my opponents had awakened something within me. I was shouting, the way I did in competitions– “GO!” “Got it!” “NICE ONE!” “Back up!” “Nice save!” “DON’T WORRY, WE GOT THIS!”
Earlier tonight, I was wrapping an overgrip on one of my spare rackets. I don’t have many rackets with me here in Sydney– 5 only actually, of which the 77 is my best racket here. The 77 was my first serious combat racket when I was trying to get better at singles. I have an MP55 as well, which isn’t a great racket, but it was my first good racket, and I keep it for sentimental value mostly. I also have a couple of others– the first racket I ever bought for myself, and the first racket I ever bought when I opened up RsM. So it’s mostly a sentimental collection that isn’t great for modern doubles badminton. But still– working on equipment, doing simple things like wrapping the grip? It’s a zen feeling. It’s like taking a whetstone to a blade– it’s an easy process in theory, repetitive and simple, but small details of the process customise the racket so that when you hold it, without seeing it, you feel its an extension of your willpower, and not just some rusty unloved loaner that someone passed to you.
Sometimes, I miss the days when [Vittek] and I would be standing at a metro stop, bundled to our ears in winter clothes, with our huge badminton bags over our shoulders. The weight on our backs was comforting. There were always more rackets in my bag than I needed, more everything than I needed– it just felt nice to have this subscribe to this cult of badminton memorobilia that gave you court cred whenever you were out being a vagrant at some new gym.
I think that when I started off playing badminton, like many other things, I did it to be more like Vittek. But since then, I think I’ve managed to love the sport because I’ve made it my own.