Shuttlecocks make badminton unique, but paradoxically also contribute to its popular image as backyard recreation rather than an energetic sport – after all, don’t real sports use balls?
In actual fact, badminton is incredibly physical – at the international level it is significantly more demanding than tennis, requiring a higher level of fitness and fast, explosive movement. The rallies tend to be long (an international match can average 13-14 shots per rally), because it is hard to score an outright winner against a skilled opponent, so players win by maneuvering each other around the court in an attempt to force a weak return and thus win an opportunity to play a finishing shot. It takes great stamina to endure such hard fought rallies.
The sheer variety of shots and tactics in badminton are made possible by the shuttlecock’s unique aerodynamic properties. Feather shuttlecocks in particular will fly straight for some distance without losing much height, and then suddenly start to descend almost vertically. This is why serious badminton players use feather shuttlecocks – although they are fragile and expensive, they add a significant degree of tactical flexibility to the game.
Examples of badminton shots made possible by the shuttlecock
With feather shuttlecocks it is possible, if you judge your shot right, to hit a hard and fast clear over your opponent’s head but still have it fall safely inside the court. This degree of control leads to furious rallies that utilize every inch of the court.
Very skilled players can use a special shot which can only be properly executed with feather shuttlecocks – the tumbling net shot. Produced by slicing the shuttle (in a similar way to putting side-spin on a tennis ball), such a shot causes the shuttlecock to literally spin and tumble over the net. It is very difficult to hit one cleanly while it is tumbling, so opponents will usually wait for the shuttle to straighten out, forcing them to lift and thus providing the opportunity to smash.
The Badminton Smash
When the shuttlecock is smashed hard, it barely slows down before it hits the ground, so the opponent only has a fraction of a second to respond. This makes badminton an incredibly fast sport, requiring superb reflexes – the fastest smash recorded, hit by Fu Haifeng of China, was a thunderous 332kph (206mph).
The fact that shuttlecocks float gently before dropping also provides the opportunity for the most impressive badminton shot of all: the jump smash! The drama of skilled players sustaining a string of high speed jump smashes against tough defenses is unique to badminton doubles, and is a truly awe-inspiring sight. And of course, this would not be the case without shuttlecocks!