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Watch the birdie, and hit it back hard

Local badminton club scores a coup as host of US team trials

On a recent day at the Boston Badminton Club in Westborough, Phyllis Lin of Acton volleyed with Alex Chung of Westford. On a recent day at the Boston Badminton Club in Westborough, Phyllis Lin of Acton volleyed with Alex Chung of Westford. (Robert E. Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Gene Cassidy
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2011
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In the late 1990s, Yvonne Chern and her husband, Wen, moved to Wayland and joined the Maugus Club in Wellesley. At the club, Wen, who was born in Malaysia, found, to his delight, badminton courts.

This began a series of events that will culminate this weekend with the country’s 40 top players competing for spots on the USA Badminton Team at a venue in Westborough conceived, designed, and built by Yvonne Chern.

The full-time head coach at Chern’s facility, the Boston Badminton Club, is Andy Chong, also a native of Malaysia. He remembers stringing a net across a narrow street when he was 10, batting a birdie back and forth, taking the net down for a car to pass, and putting it back to continue the game. By the time he was 16, Chong was the singles champion of Asia. He retired from competition as an internationally ranked player, is a former US Olympic coach, and is the current coach of Team USA.

Eighteen years ago, Beth Sopka’s friends took her to the Gut ’n’ Feathers Club in Marblehead. She saw that the badminton club was not just a place for her to socialize, but a place for her 8-year-old son, Ted Shear, to play. As Ted got older and Sopka got more involved, they traveled the country and the world playing badminton, sometimes even competing together in mixed doubles.

Sopka said she has enjoyed the sport so much, she is president of the Massachusetts Badminton Association, and was the driving force to bring the USA team trials to the East Coast. The event taking place tomorrow through Sunday at the club on Flanders Road in Westborough is the first time the trials, a key step in the Olympic selection process, have been held outside California.

In another reflection of the sport’s growth, students from seven area high schools - Newton North, Newton South, Milton, Medfield, Boston Latin, Sharon, and Winchester - last year started the Massachusetts High School Badminton League.

With the USA Trials here, a professional coach, a state-of-the-art place to play, Sopka’s savvy promotion, and high school interest, Greater Boston is becoming a hotbed for the sport.

Speed and skill on display

Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. The sound is as steady as a metronome. The strings play the same note each time the cork-topped birdie meets racket face during a warm-up session for Alex Cheng, 15, of Westford, and Phyllis Lin, 15, of Acton. They face each other on a court at Boston Badminton, skimming the shuttlecock just over the net faster than a big-league hurler’s out pitch. Bap. Bap. Bap.

Their next warm-up shows why the brochure for Boston Badminton emphasizes its 32-foot ceilings. Cheng and Lin send the birdie up as high and hard as they can, back and forth.

It looks like a blast, and sounds like someone giving a bottle rocket an extra whap with a bat just as the fuse ignites.

And because of the shuttlecock’s feathers, an odd thing happens. Birdies not only hit dragster speeds crossing the net, they have brick-wall brakes - their forward motion slows, and then they drop straight down.

During a competitive match, players return a lot of shots when the shuttlecock seems clearly about to sail over the line and out. Then witness a warm-up exchange like this, where the players let the birdie drop. If players don’t return the birdie before it goes whizzing by, they may see it lose all momentum and hit the court just inside the line. Ouch.

There’s one last thing to notice about the high-flying shots between Cheng and Lin: The shuttlecock doesn’t get lost in the lights. Boston Badminton, and all good badminton facilities, are indirectly lighted with dark backgrounds, so players, and spectators, can follow the birdie.

For the best, strategy is key

Coach Chong likens singles badminton to a game of chess, but one that requires checkmating an opponent 21 times.

“For the elite players, I teach strategy; they should already know how to play,’’ he said recently while training a group of juniors at Boston Badminton.

Chong retired in the late 1980s as the 22d-ranked singles player in the world.

Physically, he said, the game calls for a mix of skills - a volleyball player’s leap, a marathoner’s stamina, a sprinter’s speed, and a hockey goalie’s quickness. Chong said he first trains his students how to train, then he trains them to learn, then trains them to compete, and finally trains them to win.

“For the little ones,’’ he said, “I train them to have fun.’’

MassBad president Sopka brought Chong to Marblehead in the late 1990s on a special visa, as an extraordinary athlete, after he graduated from college in Florida. In addition to coaching in Marblehead, Chong coached at the Maugus Club too.

“Andy’s coming here was a key component,’’ Sopka said. “All these players gravitated toward this area.’’

“If your kids play soccer,’’ said Yvonne Chern, “they have one of the parents as a coach. Andy used to be a world-class player.’’

Local home for world sport

Boston Badminton opened in January. Most of the people playing on a recent night appeared to be of Asian descent. Badminton, competitive rather than casual, is a huge spectator sport in much of the world, from Great Britain across Europe to China, Japan, Korea, and throughout Asia.

Even in Canada, Chern said, any sporting goods store has high-quality badminton rackets, shuttlecocks with feathers, and shoes designed to allow lateral movement and reduce sprains.

Some sources trace badminton’s origins to paddle games in ancient Greece or China, but all agree that the modern game, with nets and stringed rackets, was brought back to England by British Army officers serving in India in the mid-18th century.

As Chong trained his young players at one end of the eight-court facility, the rest of the courts filled with men and women playing after work.

Vineet Singh is 30 years old and lives Southborough. He has competed nationally and internationally in tae kwon do. His club was in Cambridge, and when he and his wife moved to the suburbs, he couldn’t find another club where he felt he fit. Cambridge was too far.

Singh passed Boston Badminton a few times and his friends suggested he try it.

“I know badminton is supposed to be an Indian thing but I had never played,’’ he said. “I thought I would kill it.’’

Singh said he has grown to love the sport, even while humbled by how difficult it is to play well.

“It helps relieve stress,’’ he said.

Singh said the workout he gets is comparable to the physicality of tae kwon do. He got his wife Suma to join.

Serious exercise

A workout is something Chern said she was seeking for her children.

“I think I speak for a lot of moms when I say I was just looking for something to keep kids away from a screen,’’ she said.

In 2006, having caught the badminton bug from her husband, Chern asked the Maugus Club if she could clear out a room where props were stored from the days when the club staged community shows. She learned to frame out a floor-to-ceiling space for badminton, which, she said, turned out to be great practice for building her own place years later.

Maugus went from two badminton courts to three, but there still wasn’t enough room for camps or tournaments, so Chern began looking for new space.

It took her years, she said, to find the Flanders Road spot. Now her son Lee, 16, is the national juniors champion in the 19-and-under age group, and this weekend will try out for Team USA, as will her daughter Min, a graduate student at Bentley University in Waltham.

Chern said she sees a couple more needs to fill if badminton is to really take off in the United States.

Television coverage, for starters.

“Sponsorships include a few bags, some shoes,’’ she said, “but it’s not like tennis.’’ The players from the West Coast taking part in the Team USA trials will buy their own airfare. Without television, she said, there is no money.

Next on her list is diversity.

“This is not just for Asians,’’ Chern said.

At courtside, Sopka said one of the best things about badminton is that a parent and child, or a good player and a beginner, can play without watering the game down. The good player, Sopka said, can practice placing shots, while the new player can concentrate on just hitting them back, “like Yvonne’s doing with that girl over there.’’

And there she was, Yvonne Chern, former aquaculture professor turned badminton impresario, going bap, bap, bap.

Details about the Team USA tryouts are available at www.bostonbadminton.com.

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