I’m standing in the tunnel. It’s long and it’s dark, and my adversary looks frighteningly energetic, driven. Suddenly, I hear my name announced – it must be time. As I emerge into the arena, the lights are bright, and all becomes clear. Opposite me, Olympic silver medallist Gail Emms. Don’t be fooled by the girl-next-door looks and engaging, cheeky smile – she is out to humiliate me.
We’re here for the National Badminton League, an exciting new format of the sport in its inaugural season, and Gail and I are “entertaining the crowd” with a first-to-five-points game ahead of Surrey Smashers’ match against Team Derby. But the court seems to shrink and narrow as I attempt to train my gaze on my opponent. These next few minutes will be endured, not enjoyed.
Gail strikes the shuttlecock with a ‘swish’ and a ‘snap’ so familiar to professional badminton players…and the next noise I hear is the ‘ping’ of my mishit return which unbelievably almost wins the point on its own. But no – Gail retrieves nimbly, a rally ensues and just as I’m starting to find my feet, she feathers a drop shot barely over the net. She’s still got it then. Annoying.
I start hitting more cleanly, getting a feel for the limits of the court…but, too keen to get back to parity quickly, I find the net with the sort of pathetic effort my own grandmother would be disappointed with.
Need to be aggressive, need to wrestle control back before I get too far behind. I wind up for a big smash off Gail’s next serve, but it’s not centred…net. The crowd are already getting uneasy. I feel like a stand-up comedian whose first few jokes have gone down like a lead balloon, and my audience already want this to be over, for all of our sakes!
I had jumped at the chance to take on a badminton legend, for some bizarre reason…thought it would be fun. This is not fun.
Again, it’s a high serve…but again, my stroke which greets it couldn’t be worse. Another total miscue, the shuttle loops up off the top of my racket and drops just a couple of feet in front of me. The crowd groan. Entertaining us, are you, David? Mmm-hmmm...
“Four-love. Match point.”
As it happens, I’ve known Gail as a friend for about 10 years. At this point she gestures up towards the lights in the hall and intimates that I might have lost the shuttle in flight because of them. I scowl. No need for that, Emms – I don’t want your pity.
Fuelled by mild annoyance (more at myself than at Gail’s attempts to help me out), I focus. She serves short, I push down the line and I sense an opportunity. This time, my net shot has her scrambling and I have an easy kill to win the point…it’s on my (dodgy) backhand, and it might not be the most decisive of finishes, but I land it just inside the baseline to ironic cheers. Phew.
“Service over, one-four.”
Okay. Whitewash averted. Just get this serve in, and watch on as she smashes mercilessly back at you and…the shuttle pings off my frame again and trickles over the net. More ironic cheers. Hang on…
I wheel away in mock celebration. Look, if you’re not going to have a heroic moment, you might as well have a comedy moment. I’ll take that.
Feeling the tiniest flush of (blatantly misplaced) confidence, I try and ‘do Gail with the eyes’, shape for a high serve but send it short instead, then punch my forehand clear down the line…it looks wide, but she plays it anyway…fool. Net. Ha. Lose it in the lights, did you, Gail?!
Respectability achieved. But the crowd are expectant now, and I have the worst feeling in the world…hope. Does you every time.
High serve from me, another forehand clear, but this time it’s inch-perfect and Gail sends her wayward backhand reply out into the tramlines.
I thought I’d gone through all possible scenarios in the half-hour traffic jam on the A3 on the way to Surrey Sports Park…but not this one. Match point, TO ME! Gail looks tiny, but what she lacks in height, she more than makes up for with the size of the daggers she’s giving me right now.
I play safe with a high serve, she targets my backhand, but my shot to the back of the court puts me in control. This is it. I have a mid-court smash to finish it…
The next moment seems to last an age: as my kill arrows down off the sweet spot, it’s good, but Gail’s knees flex rapidly and her racket tracks it perfectly. Decades of experience of returning smashes from players far stronger, far more skilful and far more accurate than me kick in. It’s talent, it’s instinct, it’s muscle memory…and perhaps also, it’s the hideous prospect of losing to me.
In a heartbeat, defence is turned into attack – her pick-up sends me ambling away to my left, and suddenly I need to lunge to keep the rally going. But I can’t. My backhand is rash, and again I hit with frame not strings. The shuttle squirms under the net.
“Game, set and match.”
It was the first time Gail had picked up a racket in 3 months, she casually tells me afterwards. But her words say one thing and her eyes tell a different story. A contest is a contest. I should have known in the tunnel that she was never going to lose that match point. Even 11 years on from Olympic glory, the competitive edge never, ever leaves you.