Is there an ideal height for badminton?
The recent French Open final between Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen and Malaysia’s Daren Liew was a study of contrasts. Axelsen, who is around 6 ft 5”, towered over his smaller Malaysian opponent, and, appeared an overwhelming favourite as they walked to the court.
But Liew showed exactly how a taller opponent can be brought down. Playing a clever strategic game, he repeatedly had Axelsen bending down near the net, and then twisting as he played the shuttle behind him. Axelsen was unable to impose his attacking game on the smaller Malaysian, and Liew had his first major title.
Which brings us to the question: is badminton loaded against the bigger guys?
Look around, and it’s hard to convince oneself otherwise. The average height favoured by badminton seems to be in the range between 5-8” and 6. Three of the contemporary greats – Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Taufik Hidayat, appear to be between 5-8” and 5-10”. Peter Gade is a shade taller, probably around 6.
India’s Arvind Bhat, who stands 6-2”, is a firm believer that height — beyond the 5-10” to 6 range – works against the player. Arvind bases his argument on a particular observation that is likely to be contested by others: that, the taller one gets, the less effective becomes one’s drop shots. “That’s because, since you catch the shuttle at the highest point, the shuttle has to travel a longer distance, and you give your opponent a fraction of a second longer to react, compared to someone who is shorter,” says Arvind. “The ideal height is between 5-9” and 5-11” – perhaps not even 6 ft… I’m convinced that the taller you are, the harder it is to play an effective drop from the back of the court. If you see the tall players, none of them have an effective drop from the back court. Of course, if you get it near the midcourt you can kill it. This apart, there are some typical disadvantages for tall players – they find it harder to bend down, and there’s a greater pressure on the knees. That’s why, if you look around, you rarely see successful players taller than 6 ft.”
There has been an undeniable shift in the average height of successful players of this generation. While Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan are good prototypes for a badminton player, the general shift – especially among Chinese players — seems to be towards the six-footer. The best examples of this type are No.3 Chen Long, who is tall and muscular; No.4 Chen Jin, and Wang Zhengming – all of them 6 ft or above.
The Chinese women’s average height has shot up even more significantly. Over the last 15 years or so, the Chinese seemed to favour tall players. Perhaps the only short one among them to make it big in recent times was the world champion Gong Zhichao. Players like Zhang Ning, Xie Xingfang, and now, Wang Yihan and Li Xuerui, all stand close to 5-11”.
Arvind’s theory is hotly contested by his compatriots Anup Sridhar and Aparna Popat. Anup believes that the advantages of being tall far outweigh any disadvantages, especially if the player has strong legs, which helps a player be better balanced. “Look at Kenneth Jonassen, Thomas Stuer Lauridsen and Bao Chunlai,” says Anup. “All of them are very tall. The taller you are, the better angles you can get for your drop shots, and the easier it is to reach the shuttle. Everything else being equal, the tall player has the advantage. The reason you find few tall players is because the average player’s height, across the world, is between 5-10 and 6.”
Aparna contests the view that tall players cannot play effective drop shots. “There are many varieties of drop shots,” she says. “I’ve seen tall players play effective drops. Besides, once you catch the shuttle high, you have so many options. You can get a steeper angle, and you can mix the drop with a half-smash and so on.”
Aparna does concede, though, that players who face tall opponents do try to exploit the relative lack of agility. “Generally speaking, their bodies are not sufficiently balanced, and they can’t get down fast enough.”
This also begs the question: what about shorter players? Is the game effectively over for them? Or will a new version of the ‘Pocket Dynamo From Penang’, Eddy Choong, appear on the scene and strike some blows for the smaller guys? Badminton awaits this exciting prospect.