Photo by Keith MayJust inside the Orange County Badminton Center (OCBC) in Orange is a sign that warns, "Please no food or shuttlecocks from outside."
That admonition greeted anyone walking into the OCBC during the first weekend of April. Other signs throughout the gym—the largest badminton facility in the Western Hemisphere—conveyed with deadly seriousness the sanctions falling upon players daring to smuggle in foreign shuttlecocks.
April is badminton season in Orange, site of the annual U.S. National Badminton Championships; this one was the sixth held since 1997. Badminton may be one of the least popular and commercial sports in the U.S., but in Orange County, it is played with intensity.
"In general, badminton is popular throughout Southern California and California as a whole," said tournament director Paisan Rangsikitipho, who explained that the OCBC is a private facility built by the owners of K & D Graphics, who are devout badminton fans. "A lot of players live in Orange County."
Twenty-nine of this year's 84 participants, to be exact. And virtually all of them were Asian, reflecting the sport's incredible popularity in Asia. (The OCBC snack bar serves only Thai food.)
And seriously, who wouldn't love a sport that uses something called a "shuttlecock"?
Badminton is played like tennis, except the rackets and courts are smaller, and the shuttlecock—a rubber ball with a flared plastic tail that allows it to glide through the air—doesn't bounce on the ground unless you screw up. The matches are also faster, usually lasting no longer than 20 minutes.
Sometimes the players will stand still, lightly tapping the shuttlecock until it just clears the net. Other times, players will blast the shuttlecock across the court, making a snapping sound like a gunshot and forcing their opponents to run and dive for it.
"It's a different sport," said Raymond Wong, an 18-year-old Villa Park High School student who competed in the men's doubles. "I used to train here every day, but now I only come in once or twice a week. Not too many people play it, but it's fun."
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It may be fun, but it sparks in many players the same need to win as in other sports. After he smashed his way to his seventh men's singles win in the past nine years before a crowd of at least 50, two-time Olympian and Orange resident Kevin Han thrust his fists in the air with the same passion that grips Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi after a hard-won victory.
And then there's the passion that goes too far. While Han was winning his title, across the gym, two women were playing in a runner-up playoff. One of the competitors, a woman from Irvine, botched one play and yelled, "Idiot!" Another mistake brought out a sharp "fuck!" Later, she bounced her racket off the court in disgust. She was the tournament's McEnroe.
She lost, sat down and removed her shoes. After picking up the laundry basket containing her gear, she limped off the court, past some resting players who were talking about knee surgery.
Like many of the players, she was already wearing a knee brace. And she still winced with every step.