Badminton blindsides players with new service rule

Carolina Marin says it is always difficult for the service judge to rule a serve consistently and correctly. AP Photo/Anupam Nath

"This is how BWF and service judges have been playing with our career. Looks like they don't really care about our years of struggle and hard work to achieve our goals. (Not even 1 out of 100 will agree that these are fault serves)."

N Sikki Reddy, the Indian doubles badminton player, let it rip on Twitter last week after being at the receiving end of the new service rule implemented by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) for the first time at the German Open last week. Reddy and her mixed doubles partner Pranaav Chopra lost to the Thai pairing of Tinn Isriyanet and Pacharapun Chochuwong in the pre-quarterfinals.

Reddy also embedded a video of the controversial calls made by the service judge using the new rule. It is clear from the video that when Reddy hits the shuttle to serve, the point of impact is at her thigh level. According to the new service rule, the point of impact cannot be higher than 1.15 metres from the court level.

Last November, the BWF tweaked the service-related law, saying it would be introducing a fixed service rule on an experimental basis in all the top tournaments in 2018. During this trial period, the service law would read: "The whole shuttle shall be below 1.15 metres from the surface of the court at the instant of being hit by the server's racket." The previous service rule -- "the shaft and the racket head of the server's racket at the instant of hitting the shuttle shall be pointing in a downward direction" -- has become an alternative service law.

Reddy is about 5'6" tall. On Monday, while explaining her case to ESPN, she stood up and said 1.15 metres would be somewhere close to her midriff. Asked why she could not challenge, she said, "I can't." When she did check with the service judge what was wrong, she only got a curt "too high" as reply without any further explanation.

Measuring the serve

The way the service judge now assesses the serve is full of ambiguity. A pole is placed in front of the judge, who sits facing the chair umpire on the other end of the net. Two glass panels -- placed at a height of 1.15 metres from the court level -- are fixed atop either side of the pole. And two dark lines are drawn on either side of the glass panels.

When the player serves, the service judge makes an assessment by watching these dark lines. In case the whole shuttle is hit above the dark line, he will call it a fault.

The problem with such an assessment: it is prone to human error. At all times, the service judge is trying to align his line of vision with the dark lines on the glass panels. He is also, based on his height, trying to adjust his seating position to get an accurate view. But his calls, as the players are complaining, are not entirely accurate. Not at all times, at least.

"I have played badminton for over 30 years and have competed in a lot of big competitions over 10+ years, and I didn't expect that in 2018 I would actually need BWF to teach me how to serve. To be honest, this is ridiculous!"

Lin Dan, two-time Olympic champion

And that is the grey area the players are fighting against. "The service judges that we observed during the German Open did not seem like they had had enough coaching themselves," Reddy said. "While we were practising we noticed these umpires were trying to work it out."

At the point when one controversial call was made, Reddy/Chopra were trailing 13-14 in the second game. Reddy said Chochuwong was not faulted even once during the match. "However in the quarterfinals [where the service judge was different], the Thailand girl was faulted frequently while she was serving," she said.

Such unwanted distractions have affected players' focus and even the result, as Reddy found out at the German Open. "It affects the players mentally," she said. "We could have won that match. I got three faults in the same game. Because of that I was not sure where to serve from and, consequently, I hit couple of serves into the net. My partner [Chopra], too, got distracted. We lost seven points out of 21."

'Scared', 'strange', 'confusing'

Kidambi Srikanth, the world No. 4 and India's No. 1 ranked male player, says the new rule is "something strange, something odd". For him, the big challenge will be to alter the way he serves. Srikanth is about 5'10" -- much shorter than world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen, who is 6'4". "I will have to change 15% to 20% in my style, the way I serve," the Indian player said. "What I am saying is, I have to do that each time I serve. I am putting more focus on my serve instead of the strategies. Earlier I used to think more about what to play after I serve, but now it is more challenging to think only about the serve. And if I get called, [it] will become more stressful."

Srikanth and the other Indian players have practised serving under the new rule in front of some umpiring officials from the Badminton Association of India. "To be safe, you are now trying to hit about five to six inches below compared to when you served previously," he said. Still, he admitted, he is "scared" of the unknown.

"I can't change my height. I guess I will just have to squat down when I serve."

V Shem, Olympic men's doubles silver medallist from Malaysia

Reddy feels the new rule is going to affect the doubles players. "In singles, the player still has the option of the high serve," she said. "In doubles, you cannot serve behind the box. Unlike singles, where you are one against one, in doubles you have a very short time and the BWF insists the points have to be quick."

Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei, the defending All England champion, is also uncertain about how this week will pan out. Like Srikanth, Chong Wei will be playing under the experimental service law for the first time. "I don't know the rules," the world No. 2, who has won the title four times, said with a laugh on Tuesday. "It is very tough. I saw the German Open and I saw players serving half-squat."

Chong Wei sat in the middle of a line-up of seven players, all put up by the All England organisers on the eve of the tournament. Every player said they had strong reservations about the new service law. Sitting alongside Chong Wei were Spaniard Carolina Marin, the British mixed-doubles pairing of Chris and Gabby Adcock, Danish doubles specialist Christina Pedersen, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon (one half of the defending doubles champions pairing from Indonesia) and Srikanth.

Fingers crossed

The Adcocks wanted the service judges to be consistent. "As long as there is some form of consistency, which I'm not sure was there at the German Open, that would be a start," Gabby said. Her husband said the BWF's move to introduce the new rule in an important tournament was "strange". "It is bit of the gamble," he said.

Pedersen pointed out that the basis of the BWF decision was to make it a level-playing field when it came to the serve. From its own internal survey and discussions among officials, the federation found out that tall players were at an advantage when it came to the serve. "I don't think it is even for everyone because if you are a small player then you can actually raise your serve, but if you are tall you need to -- like Chong Wei said -- go down to serve under the 1.15 (mark)," Pedersen said. "I cannot say it is a right decision or a wrong decision, but it is a difficult decision."

"Stating a new measurement is not enough. They should make it clear whether it's the feather or the shuttlehead that cannot be above the height [1.15 metres from court level]."

Cheah Soon Kit, Malaysian doubles coach

All the seven said that the BWF did not consult any player while drafting the rule last year. Marin said it was "always difficult" for the service judge to rule a serve consistently and correctly.

Fernaldi hoped that he and his men's doubles partner Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo could "repeat" their 2017 title win, but it would not be easy with the change in rules. "We must be thinking about how to play again," he said in broken English. "Everyone may be confused about that [the new service law]."

Over the past few years, BWF administrators have constantly tinkered with various rules in their attempt to make badminton more fast-paced and thrilling. But their latest attempt has only pushed players into an unknown territory and left them nervous and aggrieved.