For once, the main topic of discussion before the start of an international Superseries (now World Tour) badminton championship is not just about the number of top guns participating and their chances, but more about the controversial new service rule that is to be implemented for the first time at the German Open, which kicks off from Tuesday in Mulheim-an-der-Ruhr.
Apparently browned off at the constant controversy over the low backhand serve that has become almost as popular in singles as it is in doubles, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) announced a rule change in the closing weeks of 2017.
Unlike earlier, where the point of contact of the shuttle with the racket strings was required to be below the last rib of the server, the new rule said that from March 2018 onwards, the point of contact needed to be no more than 1.15 metres from the ground.
Special equipment, that defines a horizontal line through a clear plastic panel at the service judge’s eye level, has been readied to assist the official in deciding the legality of a particular service. It has been installed at courtside on every one of the four courts that will be in use at the Innogy Sporthalle over the next six days and will be employed for both the singles and the paired events.
The other major rule change that is being contemplated is the scoring format. The BWF is making an all-out attempt to shorten the game and make it television-friendly by introducing a 11x5 format (i.e. five games of 11 points each), instead of the existing 21x3 format (three games of 21 points each) on the point-per-rally system. This new scoring format, in which a player requires a minimum of 33 points to win the match, instead of the existing minimum 42 points, will be tried out at the All England Championships next week.
While the discussion around the points system can wait, the immediate concern of the players is about their need to contact the shuttle at a point lower to the ground than they have been used to all these years, especially if they prefer the backhand short serve.
The problem is exacerbated in the case of taller players like Denmark’s Mads Pieler Kolding, who towers 6’ 8” (2.05 metres) above ‘mean ground level’.
If Kolding has to strike the bird at a point below the fateful 1.15 metres level, it would mean contacting it below his waist level. Such a backhand serve would, more often than not, cross the net tape at a rising angle, being easy meat for a kill by the opponent. A flicked serve would also meet with the same sort of treatment.
World Champion Viktor Axelsen, who clears 6’ 4” in his socks, is one of the most bitter critics of the new service rule, asserting that it favours the shorter players at the expense of the six-footers.
For players like the top Japanese women’s singles twosome of Akane Yamaguchi (1.56 metres) and Nozomi Okuhara (1.55 metres), a short serve under the new rule would be a piece of cake.
So riled was Axelsen at the new BWF rule, that he made a video in the company of Kolding, where the two totally poker-faced players were comically seen to go down on their knees while serving, before contacting the shuttle with their backhand. India’s national coach, Pullela Gopichand, joined Axelsen in criticising both the new rules for service and scoring format, saying that it was wrong on the BWF’s part to tinker with the basic rules of the sport, merely for the sake of television rating points.
On the flip side, an Indian international player who supports BWF's service rule, despite the obvious disadvantage to taller players, said, “It is a good move, as the height advantage or disadvantage for a player would vanish. Like in cricket, the bowler’s arm action, angle or chuck is a matter of rule. I think, with time, the service height rule will evolve. In the same manner as the one bouncer per-over limit in limited-overs cricket, certain adjustments will be made over time.”
Another player who is short-statured added to the debate and said, “As a short player, I would obviously support the rule, since there will be virtually no alteration in my backhand service action. Will it really make any difference to my serve? Perhaps not. Can I take advantage of this rule? I really can’t be sure. We will have to wait and see in actual competition. Obviously, all tall players would be inclined to ridicule this rule. I guess only time will tell whether it makes sense or not.”
Mumbai-based Manoj Ramchandran, a keen observer of the sport, and father of Shlok who with MR Arjun forms one of India’s top three doubles pairs, feels that a vast amount of initial confusion is bound to take place.
“I think the rule will spell the death knell for the backhand short service in men’s doubles, and players will have to revert to the old forehand short serve,” said Ramchandran.
“Since the change in the service action of the Indian players seen practising at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) in Hyderabad in recent days was very marginal, you can expect a lot of faults to be called in doubles matches at the German Open. The sad part of the whole thing is that being faulted on serve affects the players’ nerves, concentration and also footwork for the next shot.”
Ramchandran recalled the men’s doubles final of the 2016 Pune Nationals, in which four national-level players — Shlok and Arjun on one side, and the duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty on the other —faced off against one another for the title, only to have the tenor of the match being totally thrown off by service judge Shailesh Kulkarni, who called some 40 faults on all four players.
Despite the intervention of the chief referee, Dhananjay ‘Uday’ Sane, there was no relenting from Kulkarni, who continued to call the players for faulty serves. At one point, the 6’ 4” tall Shlok almost mockingly pulled up his T-shirt and tucked it inwards, displaying his umbilicus to show the service judge the point at which he was contacting the shuttle, but to no avail.
Even Tan Kim Her, the Malaysian coach for the Indian national doubles pairs, requested the service judge to let the players play their title match unhindered by the pressure of being constantly faulted on serve, but even his entreaties were coldly disregarded by Kulkarni.
It must be stated here that the Pune-based official is otherwise held in high esteem as a generally fair and unbiased umpire. At the same time, it must be underscored that he has rarely faulted any doubles player in international competition. But on that particular day, he almost revelled in calling the players for faulty service. Neither before, nor since, have any of the four players involved in that doubles final been pulled up so repeatedly and consistently for faulty service.
“Last night, Shlok called me from Germany, saying that he was tensed up for his opening qualifying round match (against Thailand’s Inkarat Apisuk and Tanupat Viriyangkura),” says Ramchandran. “The 1.15 metres demarking equipment had reached the PGBA just a couple of days before they left for Germany. They practised a bit, but were not confident.
“In Germany, during their practice sessions, even Arjun, who is 5' 7" was being faulted. I advised Shlok to strategise and use the problem as an opportunity, and revert to the forehand short serve.”
Ramchandran and Arjun form the advance vanguard of a tiny Indian contingent that is taking part in the German Open. While they have entered the main draw through qualifiers, reigning national champions Manu Attri and Sumeet Reddy bump into a qualifier duo in their opening outing and then clash with the tall second-seeded Danes, Kolding and Mads Conrad-Petersen.
In singles, there is just one Indian, Subhankar Dey, in the fray, with the rest of the national stars preferring to skip the German ‘city on the river’, and proceed directly to dank, cold London, en route to Birmingham for the All England Championships, starting on 13 March.
Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Co will invade Ole Blighty over the forthcoming weekend, with the intention of emulating the 1980 and 2001 feats of Prakash Padukone and Gopichand, who remain the only two Indians to have bagged top honours at the All England, one of the most prestigious events in the shuttle sport.
Updated Date: Mar 06, 2018 23:06 PM