Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Badminton: Finally in mainstream ?

Professional players to put on exhibition in Rockville on Saturday

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Sports fanatics in the Washington Area don’t hear much about badminton. It’s not a prominent sport in the area, or the country. But Hong Kong, China native and local Badminton4US Club Committee Chair Desmond Wong, an avid badminton player himself, is determined to help change that.

He and his club will take a major step in creating awareness of the sport Saturday when they host an exhibition featuring the world’s No. 3-ranked women’s singles player, HuaiWen Xu, at the Twinbrook Recreation Center in Rockville from 2-6 p.m. Tickets are $5 for children and $10 for adults.

Joining Xu will be former China National Team member Chibing Wu (1985-1991), the founder and head coach of the Queens and New York City Badminton Clubs in New York, four-time United States National Champion YePing Zhao (1995-2000) and several talented local players for an afternoon filled with elite-level badminton. Saturday’s event will include singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches

‘‘I want to try and promote the sport,” Wong said. ‘‘It’s special to have the world’s No. 3 player in the area. This sport is popular in Asia. I want people here to realize it’s a great sport and it’s not just for Asians.”

Most are unaware of badminton’s fast-paced nature, Wong said. But he’s hopeful the expected 100 spectators Saturday, watching Xu, Wu and Zhao display the agility, quickness, coordination and stamina required to succeed in badminton, will spark some interest within the community.

‘‘Badminton is an amazing sport,” Wong said. ‘‘It’s one of the hardest sports to play. There’s a lot of running, jumping, lunging. You need to be fit. We hope that this will help get the attention of some juniors. It’s good for them to start playing at 9 or 10, that’s the best time to start training if you’re going to go professional.”

Xu, 32, is amid the best two years of her career — rough estimates place her in the low six-figure range in prize money during that span. She won the Swiss Open last January and followed it up with a first-place finish at the European Championships in April. She’s already won two tournaments this year, the Greek Open and the Dutch Open. In 2004, while representing China at the Summer Olympics in Greece, she reached the round of 32.

Wu and Zhao also boast lengthy resumes, including Wu’s bronze medal in the mixed doubles bracket at the 1989 World Championships and Zhao’s numerous U.S. national titles.

While badminton isn’t a mainstream sport in the United States and there aren’t many avenues for professionals in this country yet, Wong said popularity in the sport is on the rise. And he believes a prosperous professional career in the sport will be a reality in the near future. Plus, there’s always international competition.

‘‘Putting money aside, badminton is a great sport,” Wong said. ‘‘It’s healthy. The main reason it’s not as popular right now is because it’s not like tennis and golf where you get paid millions of dollars. But you can make something out of it. But I think soon it’ll get better.”