PRIOR to last week badminton was a sport that I, and I suspect many others, had long struggled to comprehend.
The notion of smacking an object, in this case a shuttlecock, as hard as you possibly can only to see it barely creep over the net has always struck me as the epitome of frustration.
So it was with some trepidation, and no small amount of intrigue, that I arrived at Pembroke Leisure Centre for the third of my weekly Commonwealth Games’ challenges – a training session with the best young players from the Pembrokeshire Badminton Association.
Leading the way was coach Phil Gwyther, a Welsh Badminton Union Development Officer who is renowned in Pembrokeshire for the sterling work he does amongst the county’s schools and clubs.
And not without success. Indeed, only last month a junior team from the county returned from the Welsh Shuttles Finals in Welshpool with three gold and four silver medals.
“We have a lot of good young players in Pembrokeshire,” said Phil.
“But inevitably, numbers drop as players get older due to other commitments.
“So it is vital that clubs keep producing junior players and keep attracting new members.”
Phil regularly travels around local primary and secondary schools in order to promote the game, and admits that youngsters often have to battle against a lack of adequate facilities.
“Badminton is a sport that really does deserve more funding,” he said.
“Obviously you need to have the right sized halls in order to accommodate courts and nets, otherwise you have to improvise.”
Indeed, Pembrokeshire’s top badminton player, Welsh international Jordan Hart, told me than when playing abroad she often competes in halls with up to 24 full sized courts.
Unfortunately for me, the full sized courts in Pembroke were more than an adequate when it came to intimidating a complete novice like myself.
I was able to breeze through the early parts of the aerobic warm up, until experiencing my first real hurdle. Namely, getting the shuttlecock over the net.
After just a few minutes on court with Lowri Hart, Jordan’s younger sister and herself a Welsh No 1 in the under-11 age group, I soon realised there was much more to the sport than trying to hammer the shuttle back and for. Lowri barely broke sweat as I tried in vain to match her timing, array of shots, and superior footwork.
From there, it was a series of short drills, which included net shots, serves, and rallies from the back of the court, all of which exposed my lack of experience and technique.
“Your arm is tucked to close to your body and you need to extend it further when you swing,” one youngster told me, as politely as he could.
“And when you are playing the overhead shot, you need to try and get underneath it instead of snatching.”
And then it was Phil himself who shattered my optimistic belief that being quick enough to hurtle around the court would be enough to get me by.
“It’s no good being too fast,” he said.
“It’s more important to focus on your footwork and getting in the right position early.”
All of which left me feeling a little under prepared as I stepped up for the first, and the way I was going possibly last, match of my badminton career.
Again, Lowri would be my opponent, as she teamed up with fellow Pembrokeshire team mate Sion Williams to take on myself and the unfortunate Ben Richards.
An early positive was that I was beginning to get the hang of consistently hitting the shuttle over the net. The downside was it would then fly back past me before I could see it.
After Ben carried me through the early stages, the coaches decided to take the amusing step of replacing opposition player Sion with Jordan herself. My struggles, compounded by Bill Carne laughing heartily to himself at court side whilst reminding me of how he was a better player in his day – were about to deepen.
So here I was, armed with memories of my 1996 Ysgol Dewi Sant year seven tennis tournament win (my only racket sports success to date), against a superstar still hopeful of making the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Indeed, earlier this year she won her first Welsh senior cap in the European Team Championships in Switzerland.
Needless to say, my first serve to her was subsequently hammered back down at my feet with nonchalant ease.
As I continued to provide easy meat and drink to the Hart sisters, Ben’s sterling work at least kept things respectable as we trailed 17-10.
At this stage, I was yet to contribute a single point to my team, before a solitary moment of glory.
As I wound up for an ‘overhead smash’, with Jordan poised to return it at the other side of the net, I proceeded to shank the shuttle off the side of my racket. It looked horrible, but it was enough to wrong foot both of my illustrious opponents and land just over the net for my first ‘winner.’
It wasn’t enough to save us from a 21-13 defeat, but it was a crumb of comfort from a difficult debut.
And to put things into perspective Jordan, who trains for four hours every day and is just returning to fitness after a spell out with glandular fever, admitted she was playing at about 50%.
To his credit, Phil’s analysis of my performance was dignified: “Like all racket sports, badminton is very much a game of technique,” he told me.
“You’ve been thrown in at the deep end today but it’s not a sport where you can just come along once or twice and excel.
“It’s a sport you really need to dedicate a few months of work to. Only then will you know if it’s a sport you can take to a higher level.”
Believe me, he’s not wrong.
But in all seriousness, badminton may be dubbed a minority sport by some, and the game’s top stars will never receive the media acclaim afforded to our national footballers, amongst others.
But it is a sport that requires fitness, intricacy and skill in abundance, and both coaches and players alike in Pembrokeshire deserve great credit for producing a strong, vibrant and ultimately successful playing scene in the county.
Next week, I’m off to Merlins Bridge Amateur Boxing Club for a session with Graham Brockway and his prodigies.
I suspect that by the end of that night, I am going to desperately miss having a net to separate me and my opponents.
Bill Carne's verdict:
Fraser is a very good all-round sportsman but as soon as he got on court at our meeting with a group of talented young players from the Pembrokeshire Badminton Association at Bush Leisure Centre he was out of his comfort zone.
He had played tennis as a nipper but this was different – he didn’t find it easy to use a wrist action, rather than just a swing of his right arm.
It left him with the problem of taking such a swing to get the shuttle over the net from deep positions that the shuttle had returned to him before he was anywhere near to being in position for the next one.
But it has to be remembered that Fraser was playing against some of the best young players in Wales, carefully nurtured by Phil Gwyther and Derek Hart, and it was his first grip of a badminton racquet.
Now Phil is a no-nonsense feller and although he gave Fraser good advice about his weaknesses he also put things perfectly in perspective when he said it wasn’t a sport anyone could pick up overnight.
Fraser even thought I was chuckling at him but it was merely an attempt to smile encouragingly at his flailing arm!
But if he thinks this was tough just watch out next week old chum – because I’ve had a quiet word with Graham Brockway already!
Tune into the Radio Pembrokeshire Friday Night Sport Show this week, from 6-8pm, to listen to Bill talk to Fraser about his badminton debut, as well as Phil Gwyther, Jordan and Lowri Hart and their father, Derek, about their deep involvement in the game.
For more on badminton in our county, visit the Sport Pembrokeshire Facebook page.