Sun, 13 Mar 2005

All aboard: Badminton must reach out and go global

On the eve of this week's All-England, badminton's most prestigious tournament, Denmark's top men's singles player Peter Gade complained that domination by Asian players was detracting from the sport's enjoyment for spectators. Four-time All-England women's singles champion Susy Susanti contends that badminton needs to step out of its traditional centers to reach new audiences.

There is some truth to what Peter said, in that a match is always more interesting when the players are from different countries.

Yet it does not have to be the East vs. West contest that Peter described. Showdowns between players from within Asia are also interesting, like my rivalries with Bang Soo Hyun of South Korea and China's Ye Zhaoying, or Icuk Sugiarto and Han Jian in the 1980s.

China is dominant right now, but there is always change at the top of the game. In the mid-1970s, perhaps there were those who thought Indonesia was winning too much with Rudy Hartono and Liem Swie King in the men's singles, but today everybody is struggling to compete with the Chinese.

Denmark has consistently produced top players, especially in men's singles and doubles. But even its women's singles players have ranked among the best, and it has been more successful in regeneration than us in producing players in the top 20.

There is no doubt that Danes and other Europeans can compete at the top level -- they have the skills and physique. But there is one important aspect -- mental toughness -- that I think the European players need to work on.

In some sports, it used to be the case that we had lost before we stepped onto the court, because Indonesians perceived athletes from Europe and the United States to be taller, stronger and better than us.

In badminton, it's the other way around. I enjoyed playing against European players from Sweden and the Netherlands because I knew that many of them were easily frustrated and would give up. When losing or in a pressure situation, they would commit unforced errors, so I didn't get tired playing them.

An example was Camilla Martin of Denmark. She was a very good player, with excellent footwork, strokes and style. She was tall, but she was also agile around the court. Even the Chinese players were afraid when they had to play her.

But I always looked forward to playing her. One reason was because her style of play suited mine. The second was that her mental strength was suspect. If she made a mistake, she would get so angry with herself and her consistency would fall apart.

I liked her off court, but there were mind games going on when we faced each other across the net. I would sometimes smile at her on court, make fun of her a bit, because I knew she would get angry.

She was world and All-England champion, but she could have won more if she was mentally tougher.

I think the real issue to make tournaments more attractive and exciting is to ensure badminton is not restricted in popularity to Asia or a few countries in Europe, like England, Denmark and Sweden, as it is today.

The International Badminton Federation (IBF) needs to work on bringing the sport to uncharted territory, like Africa, the U.S. and other parts of Europe. Perhaps it has to use the example of tennis in being able to reach all countries and make it popular in them, and then there will be a bigger pool of players of different nationalities.

Badminton needs to be packaged in such a way that it is attractive to people and they are motivated to play. If more people are interested in playing, then of course there will be higher quality of play.

It also has to change with the times and people's tastes, but that does not mean we should do away with the basic traditions. When the All-England moved from Wembley to the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham in 1994, the new stadium had a much more modern, a bit impersonal feel about it, but the sense of tradition of the tournament remained.

Another factor in improving the popularity of the sport is increased sponsorship. With more sponsors on board, there will be more attention to the sport, and badminton will grow. Again, tennis can be used as an example.

Building the sport by increasing the participation of other countries can only work to its benefit. I don't agree that it may hurt Indonesia, in that there will be more competition and our players may lose out. The country one is born in does not define whether or not one will become a champion.

I am very proud and happy that this year's World Championship is being held in Anaheim, California, instead of Denmark or Singapore, the other countries that bid. They would have been good choices, too, but the sport is already popular there.

The IBF made a great choice with Anaheim. Now, the American public will be able to see that badminton is not a backyard pastime, but a sport that combines power and art.

And we all know that if a sport is popular in the U.S., its popularity can spread across the world.

Susy Susanti spoke to The Jakarta Post's Bruce Emond.