While it may come as a surprise to some, the fastest racket sport in the world is not tennis or racquet ball, but badminton. In fact, the numbers are not even close. The top speed for a badminton shot belongs to Malaysian doubles specialist Tan Boon Heong, who hit a smash with his Yonex Nanoray Z-Speed that clocked in at 306.34 miles per hour.
By comparison, the fastest tennis serve ever recorded belongs to Australian Samuel Groth, who managed a 163-mile-per hour service delivery. However, Groth’s world record is somewhat dubious, as it was hit at a challenger event, where speed gun technology is not always reliable. The fastest serve recognized by the Association of Tennis Professionals belongs to American John Isner at 157.21 miles per hour. Sabine Lisicki, meanwhile, holds the record for fastest tennis shot in the women’s game, with a near 131-mile-per hour serve.
It should be noted that Heong’s smash was part of an experiment designed specifically to see how fast a shuttlecock could travel. That said, the top speed of a birdie in match play is still impressive. Denmark’s Mads Pieler Kolding, another doubles specialist, once connected on a 264.7-mile-per-hour smash. In women’s singles competition, the record for fastest smash belongs to Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon at 231.15 miles per hour.
Other racket sports, and sports in general, simply do not compare when it comes to ball speed. The fastest recorded shot in a ping pong match belongs to Lukasz Budner of Poland, at just over 72 miles per hour, while the fastest pitch by a professional baseball player was delivered by Aroldis Chapman at 105.07 miles per hour. The fastest hit in baseball is slightly higher, with New York Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Staton once driving a ball at 122.2 miles per hour.
To get a sense of how fast a 264- or 306-mile-per-hour smash is traveling, individuals should remember that the average car on an American freeway is traveling at between 65 and 75 miles per hour. Even professional race cars moving at speeds of more than 220 miles per hour lag behind the fastest badminton smashes.
The speeds of modern-day shuttlecocks can be attributed, in part, to the development of synthetic string materials like high-intensity nylon used in racquets. These strings have been designed to minimize stress and injury to player’s arms while providing a powerful, reliable hitting service. In the early days of the sport, strings were made from the stomach linings of animals such as cats and crows.
Surprisingly, shuttlecock innovations have not been as dramatic. All birdies used in official badminton tournaments are made from goose feathers. In fact, feathers are specifically sourced from a goose’s left wing. Taking feathers from the same wing allows manufacturers to better ensure consistent flight patterns, especially while traveling at speeds of several hundred miles per hour. Each birdie features 16 feathers fixed to a cork tip.
Some birdies are made of duck feathers, while others consist of synthetic materials. The Yonex Mavis 350 birdie, for example, is a popular model that utilizes nylon in place of real feathers.