The National Badminton League is thriving in its second year– Sky Sports 4 covered the event in the Great Hall of the Aston Webb building, proving the NBL’s prestige. The crowd (made up of mainly UoB students) was a powerful force to be felt as Burn FM Sport took their reserved courtside seats next to the President of Badminton England. Badminton royalty was in the building. It is a testament to how important the NBL is to the UK’s badminton community that this match was covered by one of the largest sports broadcasters, encouraging badminton enthusiasts’ young and old to venture to one of the most stunning interiors at the University of Birmingham.
This was the Birmingham Lions’ first match of the year, receiving a bye in week one – a week in which University of Nottingham Badminton lost 3-2 to Loughborough Sport, firing them up, desperate for a comeback and to get off the mark with some points on Birmingham’s turf. The Birmingham Pussycats cheerleading squad got the crowd and the viewers at home going. The players were introduced. The fixture was underway.
The first match in the series of five which would decide the fixture was men’s doubles. Gary Fox, a 2015 National Championships mixed doubles finalist, and Koen Ridder of the Netherlands were up for Birmingham. The Lions seized the first game, coming from behind to take the game 9-7 after a tense period at 7-7. The Nottingham pair’s secret weapon Adam Cwalina, who competed for Poland in the London 2012 Olympics, showed his class in the second game and the Brum boys didn’t get a look in. They were soundly beaten and Cwalina’s fast and flat play at the net was too much – Notts took the game 9-2. 3-0 down in the third game and the Birmingham coach, former top ten player, Lorraine Cole decided she’d had enough and called a time out. The tactic worked – they bounced back to 3-3 but Cwalina and Hall of Nottingham were stronger, battling ahead to 6-3. The game ended 9-5 to Nottingham and they were 2-1 up. Birmingham needed a win, and a win they got – a very close and heated game won 9-7 by the home duo, taking the pairs into a tie-break. It was over in a flash. Blink and you’d have missed it. The Lions were overcome 5-3 in a tight tie break that could’ve gone either way. Speaking after the game, Gary Fox noted to Burn FM Sport that he was not intimidated by the Olympian on the other side of the net – yet he was undoubtedly the star on the court. 1-0 Nottingham.
Women’s singles were up next and the Birmingham Lions were in safe hands with Fontaine Chapman – a journalism student who is England’s top ranked female player, against Yao Jie an 11 time Dutch national champion and two-time Olympian. This was set to be an incredible match, with true Badminton pedigree on the court. Despite a close start, Chapman outclassed Jie early on, going from 6-6 to winning the first game 9-6. Jie seemed to have left her Olympic reputation off the court in the second game, and Chapman was far superior, widening the victory margin to 9-5. 2-0 up and she had Jie in the palm of her hand, yet Jie bounced back. Perhaps Chapman took victory for granted, or maybe she had utilised most of her energy in such a convincing first two games of the match, but Jie reversed the score line in the third, taking it 9-5 and bringing herself firmly back into the match. This was certainly surprising from the stands, yet a large home crowd roared the Birmingham Lion Chapman on to victory in the fourth. It was close, but a ridiculous drop shot winner sealed the deal and she took the fourth game 9-6. The teams were all square after two – 1-1.
Toby Penty, the Birmingham team captain and wild card to the 2011 World Championships, was up next in the men’s singles against Eric Pang, the seven time Dutch national champion. Penty looking to set an example for his teammates on the court and put the Lions in front and did so in fine fashion stealing the first game away from Pang with minimal difficulty – 9-4 and a huge cheer from the crowd. The second game was the closest we saw all day. 6-6, 7-7, 8-8 then Penty took the win at 9-8! Pang was despondent, having disputed some calls from the linesmen throughout the game; perhaps a sign of frustration with his own play as opposed to a genuine concern as to the state of the umpiring of this game. Pang was not to be easily defeated however, his fifteen years’ experience in the sport shining through, helping him win 9-6, but Penty did what needed to be done in the fourth to take it 9-7. Birmingham took the lead 2-1, with it all to play for.
Mixed doubles were up next, with the well moustached Swede Nico Ruponen and UoB alumni Catherine Grant representing the Lions, yet the Lions’ roar did not match their bite early on, with a 9-4 loss in the first game. Not the start they will have hoped for off the back of two Brum wins. The Birmingham pair found themselves in even more bother, despite some very impressive aerial smashes from Ruponen, when they lost the second 9-7. At 7-7 in the third, Notts were on match point when they opted to take a powerplay (a double scoring point), but Ruponen and Grant held fast, bouncing back to win the game 9-7. Ruponen gave a valiant display the fourth game truly giving his all, displaying a very impressive range of powerful stroke play, but the pair couldn’t seal the deal, losing 9-8 and thus the game, with the fixture tied at 2-2 with only one to play.
Women’s doubles was the closing match of the fixture, with Sarah Walker, the 2013 and 2014 Women’s singles national champion, and Anita Kaur representing the Lions against Emily Witts and Cheryl Seinen for Notts. It would be wrong, even this early on, to say that Walker and Kaur ever looked in doubt of emerging victorious, against the Nottingham girls. They took the first game 9-5 in a very convincing performance, impressing both the crowd and the Sky Sports (and Burn FM Sport) pundits in the process. A Nottingham timeout when they were 4-1 down in the second could do nothing to stem the relentless tide of Walker and Kaur, taking the game with the biggest margin of victory for the day – an emphatic 9-1! Needing only one game to take the match, the Lions had mild confusion over whether to take a powerplay, but surged on to take the game, match and fixture 9-4! A great win for the Women’s pair.
— BurnFM Sport (@BurnFM_Sport) November 30, 2015
It was an excellent outing for the Birmingham Lions team in this second year of the NBL. 3-2 against strong opposition was an ideal way to get their season underway – a test, but one from which they emerge victorious. Speaking to Sarah Walker about her aspirations for the team after this first win, and she noted that if they can continue this excellent form displayed at the Great Hall, they can expect big things this season. I am inclined to agree; this team showed class in all the games played – they didn’t roll over even in the games they lost, and the games which they won were convincing. An excellent home crowd and Sky Sports 4 will surely spread the word that this team is set to have a very impressive season, and they will undoubtedly be eager to get their next fixture underway against MK Badminton on the 7th of December.