Max Roehmholdt had a 100 mph tennis serve when he found himself in the Union College Fieldhouse armed with nothing but a tiny badminton racket.
“I figured I’d be OK,” he said, “because of all the tennis. Then this little Asian guy just blew me out of the water.”
That was during his freshman year. Roehmholdt is a junior now and has been playing badminton almost every week since that first beating. He hung out Sunday afternoon on the fieldhouse’s basketball court with Wayne Fu, president of the Union Badminton Club and the guy who first schooled Roehmholdt in the ways of the birdie.
They set up lightweight nets for the last badminton club tournament of the term, laughing and talking with a few dozen other players.
“Watch this guy,” Roehmholdt said, pointing at Fu, “Watch his slam shots. It’s incredible.”
A few practice passes affirmed the warning. Fu knows his way around a shuttlecock. While other guys lobbed the light projectile in long slow arcs, he smacked it with blurred slices, nearly touching the high ceiling before floating down.
“It’s all in the elbow,” Roehmholdt said.
As clubs go, Union badminton is pretty new — just four years old. Fu’s older brother Terrence started the club during his Union tenure.
“There wasn’t any way for him to play badminton,” Wayne Fu said, “no way to release his badminton urges.”
Fu blamed the previous lack of badminton opportunities on a national misconception. In the United States, most people think of badminton as a second-tier sort of game. Football, basketball and baseball are all played by multimillion-dollar athletes under the eyes of the nation, while badminton is played by unambitious middle-schoolers in backyards.
Fu is from Canada. He looks at it differently.
“It’s the fastest game there is,” he said. “You can hit a birdie at 200 mph. You don’t get that in tennis.”
The Fu brothers came from Toronto for Union’s pre-med program. Badminton is a big deal in Canada. It’s in their blood.
“In Canada, we had badminton tournaments with hundreds of players in three rankings,” he said. “There was a lot at stake. It’s like football is here.”
Terrence decided to start an official campus club to leverage college dollars into nets and rackets. It was just a matter of convincing student activities staff that badminton wasn’t just a child’s game.
“He had to convince a group of people who hadn’t played badminton since they were children that a club wound be worth the money,” he said.
They gave him $800 a year and the fieldhouse courts most Sunday afternoons. Four years later, there are a few dozen regulars, all starting to get pretty good. T
hey played at four temporary nets Sunday, the courts echoing with the swoosh and pop of the game.
Fu and Roehmholdt teamed up against a couple of freshman. The freshmen gave a respectable performance, but Fu has been playing since he was 12.
Arthur Schutzeerg popped the birdie over the net, and Fu jumped three feet into the air and sent it back in a streak.
“Last time I played, I was in my parents’ backyard,” Schutzeerg said, wiping sweat from his face.
Fu said it’s a pretty easy game to pick up, even while taking the freshmen in two games and going on to easily win the tournament.