Lin Dan’s marriage to former world champion Xie Xingfang was in keeping with a time-honoured tradition in badminton – an unequalled rate of ‘mixed doubles’ partnerships among badminton players. Perhaps no other sport has seen such a high number of players romancing (and marrying) within the same sport.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Even as badminton was developing into a popular sport in the pre-World War II years, there were several ‘badminton couples’ – the most famous of them being HS Uber and Betty Uber, who became All England champions. Betty Uber is of course the great player who donated the Uber Cup.
One of India’s early greats, George Lewis, married fellow-player Nubina, and the two had a good career on and off-court. The tradition continued in India, with Syed Modi and Ameeta Kulkarni (sadly, this relationship would end in tragedy, with the murder of Modi); Uday and Sujatha Pawar (their son Anand is now an international), Vikram Singh and Madhumita, Partho Ganguly and Anita Madan, and Ajay Kanwar and Manjusha Pawangadkar.
In later years, we’ve had Pullela Gopi Chand and PVV Lakshmi, Nikhil Kanetkar and Shruti Kurien, Chetan Anand and Jwala Gutta, Arvind Bhat and Pallavi; Jose George and Parul Rawat, and state player Shivaprakash and (international) BR Meenakshi. Several Chinese, Malaysian and Korean players too have married fellow-players. The best-known couple was of course Allan Budi Kusuma and Susi Susanti, who had a dream Olympics in 1992 when both won the singles gold. The other popular instances are Lee Chong Wei-Wong Mew Choo, and Peter Gade-Camilla Martin (which didn’t end in marriage). The odd relationship has failed, but the number is still staggering.
“It’s basically because of the camps,” former Indian international Uday Pawar told this writer a while ago. “Especially in the Eighties, we had month-long camps; you get to know each other well over such long periods. In most other sports, men and women don’t have camps together.”
The other major reason is that, unlike other sports, badminton has a mixed circuit – that is, the men’s tour and women’s tour are not split. Every tournament has all five categories of singles, doubles and mixed events, and thus players spend most of their training and tournament days together.
Badminton is also a peculiar sport because it is woman-friendly. Unlike the rough-and-tumble of ball sports, badminton has always been identified with grace and class, and women are probably more comfortable at a badminton hall rather than on the sidelines of a rugby game, for instance. From the earliest times, badminton has welcomed women.
Surprisingly, however, most badminton couples do not produce badminton offspring, so to speak. Players like Anand Pawar and Tommy Sugiarto, son of former world champion Icuk, are exceptions. Having experienced the grind of international badminton, perhaps they wouldn’t want their progeny to experience the same.