A wand may choose a wizard in Harry Potter, which was written in this part of the world, but badminton players definitely don’t take any chances. They choose the racquets they wield, with — at times maddening — precision.
So Chen Long might sport a pleasant, smiling visage either end of a badminton match, at times grinning even in the middle of it, but he is known to be exactingly meticulous about every detail of a racquet he can brandish like a sabre or a mace. His stringers clearly know a different World and Olympic champ than his fans.
His AirStream N99 national team racquet — a fourth generation upgrade — is a uniquely accelerating hit-machine with curving air-pockets carved along the frame. Strung at 33 pounds, the Li Ning generates the whiplash for the champion beast. He is known to pivot off the Li Ning Rangers — costing in a range “that’s too expensive to even quote for the European market”, according to the equipment makers’ representatives in Glasgow.
It’s in the racquets that competition in this sport hots up. While Yonex remain market leaders, there’s a fascinating contest between the leading racquet makers in technology. While AirStream’s ridden on the principle of reducing air resistance and lightening the mass, Yonex’s latest sword-scythe — the Astrox 77 is headed in the opposite direction.
“It’s a heavier racquet on the head and the grip,” says company representative Yukisato Takahashi fronting the giant stringing facility in Glasgow’s World Championship dungeons. Both the top of the head and the end of the handle are chunky, so when the racquet is swung and the head goes down, the swing remains smooth and players get power on the shuttle.
While Li Ning’s aerodynamic centerpiece Windstorm 72 — great for quick reactions, not so much for smashing – was incredibly light at 72 gms, the Astrox is upwards of 80gm.
“Power is more important,” says Takahashi, as he reveals the wonder carbon that’s got Yonex buzzing about its September 15 opening.
“It’s an amazing material called Namd,” he says. When swung overhead for a boomer smash, the shaft remains flexible, without jarring. The last racquet from the Yonex stable was the Duora Z-Strike, a two faced frame — where the curved sharper edge on one side helped on the backhand and the box-like weighty other face helped putting the weight on the forehand smash. The markings were subtly colour-coded on the curve – the orange-up for the right hander, the green-up for the left-hander.
Babolat, racquet giants in tennis, entered badminton 10 years ago, and are ambitious about doing well in Japan – home of Yonex, besides cracking France, England and Denmark. It’s a crowded space with Carlton, Head and Victor, but the tennis-pathbreakers patented the metricflex, a different shape of the shaft – rather than the rolled thin cylinder. When swung forward, the racquet doesn’t lose pace on vibrations.
The last big experiment was on the racquet head. It was isometric rather than oval like an egg-head, offering a larger sweet spot. This was after the 80s when racquet makers experimented with shapes like the tear-drop and another that resembled the tennis-spade. “It’s very hard to come up with visible technology in badminton because there’s very few materials to work with. Tennis loves the graphite innovations, but in badminton it’s only the head shape and a thicker shaft (their latest is the thinnest at 6.5 mm, as against the usual 6.8),” says Steven Chapal of Babolat.
The well-built, tall Danes, who thrive on power, prefer the heavy, chunky, stiff connectors. Mathias Boe is known to be particularly fussy about the exact specifications.
Shuttle’s eternal quest — a failed one until now — has been to make a plastic shuttlecock play like the feathers. Defence becomes an almighty headache, as the plastic ones just dip like withering flowers.
It’s the Yonex strings that most shuttlers prefer owing to their superior quality, though younger players growing up on Li Ning are known to wield them as extensions of their forearms as well. Yonex pulled off a coup when they got the greatest ever Lin Dan on board — the strings literally loosening up the hold on him as he moved a tad bit away from the national team, and Chen Long became the face of Li Ning.
“It hurts to see him in all the Yonex adverts, but we have Chen Long,” a Li Ning representative says.
Both Chong Wei and Lin Dan, the two best players of their generation, are known to string at 30-31 pounds, while someone like Ratchanok Intanon operates on 26, bringing in more skill and relying just about on the equipment (most racquets are naturally strung at 24).
While strings can vary according to player preference and weather, Taufik Hidayat was known to use very fine thin strings on his BG 65. Some towering Danes have pushed the limits of tension string, taking it right upto 36 or 37. Interestingly, both of India’s top singles players — PV Sindhu and K Srikanth — string at 32 on almost the same racquets — the 66 Ulta-Max, the supergirl’s superpower unleashed from the taut mesh.
Carolina Marin is known to string at about 29 pounds.
At the other end of the spectrum is a player like Great Britain’s doubles bronze medallist from Rio, Chris Langridge. He wielded the two-faced wonder racquet for quite some time, but is said to have no clue about how it worked.
“Oh, he didn’t care to even understand how it worked. You’ll see players spin the racquet and bore their eyes into the racquet face. Chris wouldn’t know one from the next,” guffaws a stringer for Yonex. The wizard maketh the magic, never mind the wand’s excruciatingly detailed specifications.