A decade ago, temperamental Misbun Sidek of Malaysia was stalking the courts, earning the distinction as the bad boy of badminton.
Sidek, who has retired, once dyed his sable-colored hair blond before facing nemesis Jens Peter Neirhoff of Denmark, a white-haired champion. Neirhoff was regularly defeating Sidek on the Grand Prix circuit, so Sidek thought a little intimidation might work.
"Besides, it was fashionable," said his brother, Razif.
Sidek, with blond locks, beat Neirhoff, and became a badminton cult hero, if such a type could exist.
This was way before the days of tennis' Andre (Image is Everything) Agassi, so it caused quite a stir among the shuttlecock crowd. But what really got them going was Sidek's bloodlines.
Misbun had four younger brothers and two younger sisters, all wielding badminton rackets. Officials imagined volatile Misbun clones appearing in tournament after tournament, year after year, wreaking havoc upon the sport.
They need not have worried. Misbun, it turns out, is a personality unto himself. The rest of the Sideks are as gentle as a zephyr.
"Oh, he's different than the others," said Razif's wife, Khalidah Khalid. "Misbun likes the groovy, groovy things."
The rest of the Sideks seem satisfied with the basics of badminton. You know, training six hours a day, six days a week, traveling for more than half the year to tournaments around the world. And, without much fuss or fanfare, becoming some of the world's best players.
Three Sideks--Razif, 29, Jalani, 28, and Rahman, 26--have been entered this week in the second U.S. Open at UC Irvine's Bren Events Center. Today's semifinals are scheduled for 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. The finals will begin Sunday at 1 p.m.
The five-day tournament is the only such internationally sanctioned event in the United States. This is as close as Americans will get to Olympic-caliber matches. Badminton makes its debut as a full-fledged Olympic sport at Barcelona next summer.
The Sideks are expected to contend for medals in 1992. Malaysia, a Southeast Asian country consisting mainly of dense rain forests and rubber plantations, boasts some of the world's top players, almost all with the last name of Sidek.
Next year will be perhaps the Sideks' biggest. Besides the Olympics, the Malays will play host to the Thomas Cup, badminton's equivalent of the Davis Cup.
Razif said he and three brothers--Jalani, Rahman and Rashid--are expected to bring the prestigious cup home during the spring competition. Malaysia so far has dominated its neighbor and biggest rival, Indonesia, but lost in the 1990 final to China.
It will be a heady responsibility for the Sideks, who, according to Laiwemeng Lai of the China Press of Kuala Lumpur, are the country's most popular athletes.
For players such as the Sideks, badminton is a full-time endeavor. The year-round Grand Prix schedule offers about $1 million in prizes--from $15,000 at small tournaments such as the U.S. Open to $175,000 at the majors such as the All-England Open. Nearly every country with a team holds an open.
The United States was noticeably absent from that list until David Simon, president of the L.A. Sports Council, met one of America's best players, Chris Jogis, on an airplane. From that meeting blossomed America's first sanctioned tournament, which is expected to help develop the sport in the United States.
Paisan Rangsikipho, president of the Southern California Badminton Assn. and coach at Cal State Long Beach, said this week's event gives American players a chance to test tough international competition. They need all the help they can get because the United States is not expected to challenge for an Olympic medal any time soon.
Such is the plight of America's truly amateur athletes, who struggle to make enough money to live while concentrating on their sport.
Rangsikipho said the world's top 20 badminton players all make a comfortable living. First, they earn most of the prize money. And they have lucrative sponsorships.
The Sideks are among the elite. Razif, for one, has a job at a Kuala Lumpur bank in the public relations office. His job? To compete through the 1992 Olympic Games.
"Once in a while, I have to pop into the bank to see what's happening," he said.
This, from the humble beginning of playing for fun because their father, Sidek Abdullah Kamar, played. Kamar, Razif said, was an ordinary player but encouraged his children to concentrate on the sport, which has overtaken soccer as the most popular game on the Malay Peninsula.
The Sidek children started playing when they were about 7. Most have followed the others up the badminton ladder: School champion, district champion, state champion, national champion and international all-star.
Zamaliah, 16, is the national team doubles champion. She is being primed for the international circuit once she completes school.
But for all the successes, Razif, 29, said he is tired of the travel after 11 years. Still, he has no plans for the future.
"I am what I am now," he said.
What he is now is a quick-footed, agile champion.