Story by Red Sports reader, Ms Jan Lin, a sport journalist and a former Singapore-Chinese Girls’ School player. Thanks, Jan!

As curtains fell for the 2007 Aviva Singapore Badminton Open just a fortnight ago, the writer observes an exponential growth in the popularity of badminton as a spectator sport over the last couple of years resembling that of a facelift, which she finds somewhat bemusing.

Boonsak Ponsana floats on air in ecstasy after winning the men’s singles final at the recent Aviva Open Singapore 2007. Photo by Leslie Tan/Red Sports

THE men’s singles crown at the 2007 Aviva Singapore Open went to Thailand’s talent Boonsak Ponsana who mentioned he would give his juicy cheque to his mother. Now, I have a secret that might shower me with dusts of stardom: I had dinner with Boonsak’s mother last year. Actually, it was with his younger sister (whom I’m good friends with) and their mother serendipitously joined us later at a seafood restaurant, apparently Boonsak’s favourite, just outside Bangkok city.

In the years I was involved in the local badminton circuit, spectatorship of this ancient sport revolved mainly around fellow players and badminton enthusiasts who (are usually of the older generation and) play the sport religiously. But of recent times, I have come across a fresh new breed of young hardcore badminton fans gushing about their “idols” in the sport of badminton, Boonsak being one of the more popular heartthrobs among local fans.

I think I’d be less intrigued if the fans are in their early teens – the prime age of idolism – but nope, their mean age would be about 17-years-old and many have neither held a racket (properly) nor have dabbled footwork on the courts, yet have often been swept of their feet at the sight of their “idols” photos.

Showcased on their weblogs and on forums are their blatant fanaticism and loyalty to the sport, or player for that matter. The extra miles taken to follow every match and tournament, on top of their comprehensive knowledge of the littlest detail about their “idols”, are all absolutely admirable.

Catholic High old boy Kendrick Lee changes into a fresh t shirt while contemplating his moves for the next set. Kendrick was eventually knocked out by fellow Singaporean Ronald Susilo in the quarterfinal. Photo by Leslie Tan/Red Sports.

(To be fair, I did have my fair share of such heart-thumping moments. Top off my head, I recall a sleepless night after my former coach who knew of my “soft spot” for 1996 Olympic men’s doubles champion, Ricky Subagja, sneakily took me to him during the 1999 Singapore Open, still known as the Konica Cup then.)

It is as though, in Asia, people look to the badminton brilliants as how Europeans look to the football favourites. Unlike our neighbour across the causeway who prides badminton as a ‘national sport’, support for badminton in Singapore is much more temperamental. It wasn’t too long ago that badminton in Singapore went into a period of recession and was almost relegated to an ‘ageing sport’.

Perhaps in Singapore, the declination of badminton spectatorship was followed by the lack of replacement of the local legends in the golden era between 1950s to the 80s. Wong Shoon Keat, a prominent coach in the current school sports scene, was perhaps the last legendary figure in the 20th century to put Singapore badminton on the worldwide map by his 1983 SEA Games men’s singles title.

Since then and throughout the 1990s, badminton seemed to have slumped into a dreary drought. Even though the 1990s had local girl Zarina Abdullah making an international statement on the green mats, Singaporeans would much rather watch Fandi Ahmad trained for his new tricycle trick on the green grass.

Yet by a strange twist of fate, the proverbial sporting name of this day in Singapore is clearly, Susilo. It has now come a time where badminton is regaining her honours as a popular spectator sport in Singapore despite the deprivation of ‘authentic’ players but for the good of the sport, let’s not open this can of worms anymore.

Anglo-Chinese old boy Ronald Susilo shows some serious hang time during the Aviva Open Singapore. Photo by Leslie Tan/Red Sports

A revival in this racket sport was first witnessed in the school sports scene. As a school sport, badminton is very unique. (At least it was so, during my time.) Badminton was one of the very few school sports where school players across the nation existed and interacted on a collective whole. By the turn of the 21st century, there was the existence of a distinctive community of badminton school players regardless of what school colours one was donning.

In fact, it had often stirred-up envy hearts in school representatives of other sports seeing how players in the badminton circuit were a rather close-knitted bunch. Thanks to Pilot Pen, Cheers, Ashaway and Yonex-Sunrise who have pumped (and are still pumping) in big money for the sport that have kept the badminton community going and growing.

Nevertheless, those years was still a time when school players would receive invitations to play at national competitions because organisers had to be answerable to the abovementioned sponsors in securing enough entries for a decent tournament turnout. In those days, certain age-groups and events barely met the minimum entries mark. Yet today, entries to each Under-[insert age here] category are overwhelming to say the least.

To put things in another perspective, when I walked into a public badminton hall on a weekend afternoon during my playing years, the courts were all conquered by uncles with grey or shiny heads and aunties whose stunning fitness often do not tally with their biological clocks! Strolling into a hall one weekend afternoon today, you will see an invasion of little aspiring Susilos training diligently under (a recent surge of) privatised training centres’ coaches.

Those who have followed badminton in the past decade would have bore witness to an ‘evolution’ of the sport. The change in the scoring system twice in four years is a clear case in point. Maybe it is a transition or perhaps a paradigm shift, but surely a new day has come for badminton as the sport sheds its ‘ageing’ tag in exchange for one that speaks of a resplendent revival.

The Singapore Indoor Stadium played host to the 6-star Aviva Open Singapore. Now, wouldn’t it be grand if one of you school athletes made it there one day? Photo by Leslie Tan/Red Sports