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Best of St. Louis: She's not your ordinary backyard badminton player
AT LARGE: BEST OF ST. LOUIS

Best of St. Louis: She's not your ordinary backyard badminton player

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Part of the “Best of St. Louis” series, featuring the region’s top performers in Olympic and recreational sports.

Deepti Reddy grew up in India, where everyone plays badminton, and she got pretty good at it. Then she moved to America, where not many people play badminton, and she stopped.

When she started an internship at Monsanto, she found that some people there played badminton, and she started joining them. The first tournament she went to, she won the singles and doubles title. And that was all it took. Reddy dived back in to the game.

And she excelled, playing better than all but a few women in the country. Reddy, now from St. Charles, rose as high as third in the U.S. women’s rankings and was in the top 10 for eight years, usually around fifth — which is largely unprecedented for a player from the Midwest because the sport is dominated by players on either coast.

In 2018, she set aside her Yonex racquet because life got busy — she works as a data steward lead at Bayer. That’s because, while the fifth-ranked American woman tennis player, Amanda Anisimova, earned about $1.7 million in 2019, the fifth-ranked American badminton player made about $1.7 million less.

But last year she decided to get back on the court playing women’s singles in open competition and singles and women’s doubles at the senior level. Her return has been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic. But still, even with a brief career hiatus, she stands out among St. Louis players.

When the area’s doors open again, Reddy will be heading through them to play badminton at whichever of St. Louis’ badminton clubs is playing that night. Life fits into two neat categories: work and badminton. Work pays better but badminton is a lot more fun.

“Almost every day I’m doing something for training in the evening or morning,” Reddy said. “There’s no break unless I’m really sore. It’s very tough, it’s a lot of commitment. You have to have that commitment. You have to be self-motivated and committed. If you really enjoy it, I think it comes naturally. I don’t look at it as a burden.”

Badminton often is cited as the second-most popular participatory sport in the world, behind soccer, with 220 million people wielding a racket. But the bulk of those who play it reside in Asia. In St. Louis, there are only about 1,000 club level players, said Hull Wu of the Missouri Badminton Club.

But if you’ve played badminton in your backyard, that’s nothing compared to what the game looks like at its highest level, with shuttlecocks — the real ones, with goose feathers — flying back and forth at speeds around 200 mph off the racquet. (The feathers, however, make them decelerate more quickly.) Add in the physicality involved and there is little recreational about it. That’s one of the things Reddy loves about badminton: the intensity.

“You really need to be agile, strong, fit,” she said. “You can so easily get hurt if you’re not in shape. You’re moving in all four directions in one rally, and a rally can go so long. It’s about conditioning and stamina. It’s mental as well.

“Think of it this way: You need to train with weight sessions, and do cardio just so you don’t get injured on the court. It’s not something you can wake up and play at that level. Injuries are so common to the knee and shoulder. It’s all about the prep you have to before you go on the court.”

Reddy grew up in Bangalore and when she was 7 or 8, started beating older players on the court. So her father signed her up for a club and private lessons. Reddy came to St. Louis and got a degree from Webster University and went to work at Monsanto, which later was acquired by Bayer.

In addition to getting as high as third in women’s singles, she was ranked as high as second in women’s doubles. (In mixed doubles, she laughs, she has never done well.) Her best finish in one of badminton’s big events was coming in third at the Boston Open in women’s singles in 2016, losing to the No. 1 seed in the semifinals. Her employers have been accommodating throughout to the needs of having a top-flight badminton player on the payroll, allowing her to head out early on Fridays to travel to weekend tournaments.

Reddy also is giving back to the game. She coaches and every year, she hosts a badminton tournament as a fundraiser for the United Way. She’s also the Midwest Junior Badminton chair, helping to prepare the next generation. St. Louis has a ways to go to catch up with Chicago, where most of the region’s top young players are from and where it’s a high school sport.

“We’re all trying to bring St. Louis juniors as well to that level of play,” she said. “It’s improved a lot, but if you look at the demographics, they’re all Asian and Indian. Very few American kids want to pay it. I get really excited when I see American kids, because when that happens, it will be a popular sport here.” (Here’s your St. Louis badminton name to watch: Sandeep Baskar, who is 12, is ranked 50th in the U.S. in the under-13 category.)

And now Reedy’s getting back at it herself. Even in her most successful years on the court, she figures she never made more than $2,000, though she did pick up a sponsorship from Yonex. But that’s not what matters.

“It’s not for the money,” she said. “It’s for passion.”

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