Manish Kanade played badminton in college in his native India, and when he moved to Robbinsville he was thrilled to be able to continue to play.
The Robbinsville Badminton Club was started almost a decade ago by Shekhar Joglekar, and Joe Chung has helped since its inception to run it for the Robbinsville Recreation Department.
“It’s really a good thing,” Kanade said. “Joe is really good. It’s good that we have Joe. He’s been a team sport guy. He’s always there on time every day that we meet. It’s really fun to play with the other members. Everyone is sporty. We keep it really pleasant. It’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of chit-chatting. We get to go there and get a good workout, good sports, plus good recreation too.”
It’s not the brand of badminton familiar to most from family picnics and get-togethers.
“A lot of people misunderstand badminton,” Chung said. “They think it’s just a backyard sport—you hit really high and enjoy it. Badminton is an Olympic sport. It’s actually the fastest racket sport. In tennis, Andy Roddick is serving 150 miles per hour. A badminton professional can hit a shuttlecock at 200 miles per hour. It’s a very fast sport.”
In badminton, players hit the shuttle with their racket so it passes over a net stretched across the center of the court, and lands on their opponent’s half. Each play, which begins with a serve, is called a rally. Players get one point for winning a rally. The first person or doubles team to reach 21 points wins the game.
The Robbinsville Badminton Club meets Sunday nights in the Sharon Middle School gym, where it sets up four courts for doubles play. The other half of the year, the club meets Tuesday and Friday nights, also at Sharon Middle School.
“We always wanted to move to a bigger gym, like maybe the high school,” Chung said. “Unfortunately, the high school didn’t want to get involved in this. It’s a school that is newly built. They might not have wanted the lines on the floor. I keep asking every couple years to see if they change their mind.”
The club caps its season enrollment through the Robbinsville Recreation Department at 30 members due to court space. They have no problem filling those courts, with two dozen players showing up most Sundays. Men and women ages 30 to 60 are mixed together to compete.
“Half are from Robbinsville and half are from nearby,” Chung said. “Our club does have good reputation. People come from other places to play in our town.
“We always have people on the wait list that unfortunately I’m unable to take due to the size of the space. There are always parents who come and say, why don’t you do a kids’ session? It’s a time thing, it’s a space thing, but there’s definitely a demand for it.”
Chung points out that there are badminton clubs in Robbinsville, Plainsboro, West Windsor, Lawrenceville and Hopewell. The Robbinsville club has players that range in level from beginners to intermediate, according to Chung, who is the club’s top player.
“I have seen what advanced players are like, and when you have seen advanced players you don’t call yourself an advanced player,” Chung said. “Most of those players have been trained.”
The 32-year-old still plays occasional tournaments that are open to the public. He took up the game as a student at Penn State University and improved steadily. He kept up his skills when he moved to Robbinsville after college.
“Speed, reflex, lots of balance, coordination, strategy, anything that applies to any professional sport pretty much is what you need,” Chung said. “In badminton particularly, speed and reflexes are huge.”
Not all of Robbinsville’s players come with prior experience. Ravi Agnihotri took up badminton with a little push from his wife, Manishi, who was active in the early years of the club before other commitments cut into her playing time.
“She registered me for this program several years back as a birthday present,” Agnihotri said. “I had never played badminton before. I started playing badminton and since then I’ve been playing every season without missing a single season for several years.”
The warmth of the club members kept him coming. The experienced players didn’t make him feel any lesser even though he was a beginner. He tries to pay that forward now to new players.
“When I think about it for the new players and beginners, I think it’s pretty tough for them, but when I went through that phase, I never realized I was so bad,” Agnihotri said. “People made badminton fun for me, otherwise I would have just left. I went through that phase, and Joe and some folks, they could smash it in my face but they never did it while I was just learning. I don’t do that either. If someone is just joining, we don’t make it crazy. We make it fun for them. I never realized in that initial phase that I was bad, I was just having fun. Credit goes to the folks that were helping me through that phase.”
His experience is not an accident. One of Chung’s policies for players joining is that they play with everyone, and that design helps bring a wide collection of people together.
“There have been clubs where I’ve seen people say, I don’t want to play with you because you’re a beginner and things like that,” Chung said. “I don’t want that to happen in our club. No matter who you play with, you learn something.
“A good player can play with a weaker player, and they can learn how to move faster because if your weaker player doesn’t get to it, they can help them and play that shot. That’s always something people can learn and that’s something I’ve always strictly enforced. If you want to play a little more with your friends, that’s OK, but you have to play with everyone else. That rule has been followed well by our members, and we tend to rotate quite a lot during the day.”
It’s helped players get to know each other, and form new friendships from a wide range of backgrounds. Some, like Kanade, learned the game while growing up and played in college and now keep their skills up with weekly competition.
“There are former players and a few who are really new,” Kanade said. “They don’t know much about badminton, they just come for recreation. We always play doubles because of the limited space we have and the number of participants. There are a couple guys that are the former members who have been doing this or who are really good. If they come together, it’s really complicated. It’s really fun. There are some players who are new or on the amateur side. If they’re there, it’s really fun. We play a fun way. Every point is cheered, and we really enjoy it.”
The 43-year-old’s wife, Manisha, also plays with the Robbinsville club, and they are raising a 12-year-old and 7-year-old that enjoy playing badminton at their house as a family. Some day they may have the chance to play in the club.
“I’ve been hearing about Hopewell and other places where people go,” Kanade said. “I don’t get that much time to go anywhere else. I would definitely love to see Robbinsville open up a few more of these in the winter time. I know space is not available because of other events that are happening. It’s really good we have something going on.”
Chung is determined to make sure that opportunity continues to exist in Robbinsville. He knows how much he’s gotten from playing badminton.
“It’s a sport where the more you play, the better you get and the more you like it,” he said. “It gets more interesting, it’s much faster.”
Players value what the Robbinsville Badminton Club has meant for them. It has been thriving for a decade by providing a chance for all to play, to learn and to compete.
“I have some of my buddies there,” Agnihotri said. “I look forward to playing some rounds with them. I try to set up some rounds with them, and they are very interesting and competitive. We look forward to that. At the same time, I just want to get out especially now when it’s on Sundays. If it’s a rough work day or hectic work day with a lot of stuff going on, I look forward to those couple hours to get out of the home and go there and have fun and run around on the court and play with some new folks. That’s generally the best time of the week for me.”