In this blog, I outline what the sport of racketlon is, describe my thrilling debut in a UK tour event and detail how I went about photographing it too (so there are a few nice photos for you to skip to).
“Racket what-what” I hear you ask? Racketlon is a ‘combination sport’ where you play your opponent at four sports, in the order: table tennis, badminton, squash and tennis.
Racketlon Sport 1: Table TennisLuke Barnes plays table tennis during the 2016 North England Racketlon Tournament. For nearly all my table tennis photos I focused on the player, and if back-button focusing you can generally leave the focus in one plane, i.e. the edge of the table where the player stands, unless the player is quite defensive and keeps getting pushed back. In that case, you may need to keep on your toes a little. 1/500 f/2.8 140 mm
Racketlon Sport 2: BadmintonLuke Barnes plays badminton during the 2016 North England Racketlon Tournament. Photographing badminton is a little tricky as players move about so much, especially in singles. They get down low (as in this shot), they jump high. And if you want the shuttle in shot (which is preferable) you will need to account for that too. 1/2500 f/2.8 86 mm
Racketlon Sport 3: SquashLuke Barnes plays Andrew Hopwood in their squash game during the 2016 North England Racketlon Tournament. The obvious difficulty with photographing squash is the limited places to position yourself. Particularly at this venue where all four walls were concrete and the only viewing platform was above to the rear. 1/1250 f/2.8 24 mm
Racketlon Sport 4: TennisLuke Barnes plays tennis during the 2016 North England Racketlon Tournament. With tennis you will inevitably only be able to shoot one player at a time, unless they both end up at the net (a rare occurrence). Again, inclusion of the ball helps give context to the picture in terms of what the player is about to do or what type of shot he or she is playing, but isn't essential so long as there is something else about the picture that is interesting. Going by photos of Andy Murray in the British press, this would usually be an interesting facial expression! But you'll need a very long lens for something like that. 1/1000 f/6.3 122 mm
Racketlon is so named because they're all ‘racket’ sports. Well, table tennis uses bats, but we’ll let that slide.
It’s not a well-known sport – I only heard about it a couple of weeks back but was immediately interested because, presumably like a lot of players of racket sports, I might be good at and regularly play one of those four sports, but also secretly quite fancy myself at others too (Fred Perry, having won both the 1929 table tennis world championship went on to win all four grand slams in tennis too).
I’m a good club-standard badminton player and have fond memories of epic summer table tennis sessions with my brother when on holiday.
Squash – well I’m a badminton player so it’s a natural transition.
Tennis? Have you seen the size of those rackets?
I also happen to be a sports photographer who loves snapping all sports at all levels. So I paid my entry fee and arranged to not only play my first racketlon tournament, but simultaneously photograph it. My aim was to practice photographing sports I haven’t had the opportunity to photograph before. And perhaps, if I get time, herald a new dawn in racketlon by taking the tournament by storm (spoiler: that did not happen).
Racketlon tournaments generally cater for all standards. There are UK and international tours, indeed this event was the North of England Open, held at the University of York. The tournament catered for all abilities, with divisions for ladies (‘A’ and ‘B’ standard events), men (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’), over 45s, over 55s and two junior divisions. Players are both ranked individually for each sport – four national A to D classes or one international 0+ to 4+ class – and also overall (both a score and rating points) which is handy when you may wish to check out an upcoming opponent to see where the game might be won and lost (or just lost in my case).
Prior to the tournament, in discussion with its organiser (and Great Britain racketlon squad player) Dan Busby, I was entered into the ‘C’ event. If there had been a ‘D’ (or ‘beginners’) event (as there are at some tournaments), I would have been better placed.
The massive holdall bags I took on the day were stuffed with sports and photography gear. Rammed even. Not only did I have the usual photography bits (camera, zoom lens, wide lens, monopod) but 6 rackets (begged, borrowed and – in the case of that pesky ping-pong bat – found in the loft after 45 minutes of ransacking our house we moved into 9 months ago and which still has boxes stuffed in the odd wardrobe corner). A full day of sports also called for plenty of rations and drinks.
My event, the men’s ‘C’ class, was the most popular. 15 entrants called for a knock-out format. I would be playing 4 matches: 4 matches of 4 sports each so 16 games in total. My first opponent was Matt. One thing I picked up on, this is a very friendly sporting environment. Between all competitors there was warmth and camaraderie. Before the first sport (table tennis), Matt and I had already declared openly our [perceived] strengths and given away the fact we had little racketlon experience between us (this was Matt’s second tournament).
Matt and I played out a closely fought game which he edged 21-17. His first table tennis win apparently! Honoured.
Table TennisA legal serve in table tennis involves placing the ball on the flat palm of your hand, throwing it up at least 6 inches (tape measures out!) and hitting it from behind the rear edge of the table. Who knew? Presumably, most table tennis players, but not all the ones at this tournament! Luke and Andrew (pictured) DID know, by the way. 1/500 f/2.8 105 mm
By the way, this photo is not us – I’m not that good a photographer to be able to take a nice photo of myself mid-serve. It is a later mens ‘A’ game I followed around between Luke Barnes (A1 class) and Andrew James Hopwood (A4). I’m grateful to them for allowing me to shoot them and for putting on such a great show – a fantastic contest with frequent moments of pure class.
My opening 17-21 loss to Matt meant I was 4 points down overall. Racketlon matches are determined by the difference in overall score between you and your opponent after all 4 sports have been played, with each sport being contested to 21 points. This means, for example, that tennis is played to 21 points rather than scored by the traditional games and sets.
In racketlon, the overall winner is determined by the difference in scores after the fourth sport. So Luke and Andrew, who I followed around, played out the following: 21-4 (table tennis), 21-13 (badminton), 21-18 (squash), 21-14 (tennis). Luke won +35.
For each of the four sports, serving is alternated every two points but all other rules for the sports remain the same.
So there is still swapping ends at halfway (11 points) in badminton, the tin is still present in squash and you still get second serves in tennis….erm….except for that last one there is one exception: the ‘Gumi-Arm' - the sudden-death deciding point if you are at deadlock overall after the tennis (the final sport) is completed. In the Gumi-Arm you spin and whoever wins decides whether to serve or receive one last deciding tennis point. Except there is no second serve allowed. Pressure point or what.
This one hurt me. I am a very decent club-standard badminton player. I
lost got trashed 2-21 by Matt.
I put this down to me not being used to feather shuttlecocks (poor excuse), not being a singles player (acceptable excuse) and Matt being really rather good. All round good: great smashing, great cross court drops, no hesitation and no sympathy.
I think no sympathy is probably one of the keys to racketlon. If you’re good at one of the four sports, you need to capitalise on that. Because you probably will get thrashed in one or more of the other sports. The table tennis had been tight; Matt wasn’t taking any chances.
He needn’t have worried…
BadmintonPersonally I find it tricky to serve underarm in badminton singles, in particulary the flick serve. More practice is required. I would want to be sure that the action of my flick serve was as similar as possible to my short serve so that opponents could not read my serve. 1/500 f/2.8 200 mm
Four days prior to the racketlon tournament I played squash for the very first time. I was concerned that squash was the most alien of the four sports to me, beforehand. So I had arranged an introductory session with a friend (thanks Erin!).
I really enjoyed the match, and though Matt was also no expert, he thoroughly squashed me 21-5. No mercy.
SquashStrangely, the best place for any items you have to bring in to the court is below the tin (the bottom line on the front wall) as it is very unlikely that they will interfere with play there. 1/1250 f/2.8 24 mm
I think tennis is where I could easily gain the most points in future tournaments - if there are future tournaments for me. Having only ever played casually and not for a good decade at least, I was woefully inept. Only my innate athleticism [who’s that sniggering at the back?] meant I was able to serve and at least initiate the rallies. Unfortunately I was simply not practised at ground strokes and my backhand attempts were laughable.
TennisAndrew Hopwood's cheering fans followed him to this event and got the best seats in the house. A bit too close for me, but it depends on who's serving into the corner - if it's me then you can have no concerns! 1/1000 f/6.3 86 mm
Having completed the rout 3-21 in tennis, Matt had won +57 overall and positively rocketed into the quarter-finals. Looking down the day’s other scores, it wasn’t the biggest walk over of the day…but it wasn’t far off. Even still, it was strangely enjoyable.
I was put down into the draw to determine places 9th to 15th but had a bye meaning I automatically went through to the draw for 9th to 12th places. I then played Nick who beat me by +35 (table tennis 11-21, badminton 21-10, squash 21-5, tennis 21-3).
Three personal highlights for me occurred in this match:
I think going for broke, like I did in that penultimate tennis rally, might be a useful tactic in racketlon. If you’re playing an accomplished player (or at least, considerably more accomplished than you), then you may as well go for it a little. Why spend 5 or 6 strokes getting to a position where your experienced opponent will finally outmanoeuvre you, when you can hit a spectacular winner every now and then, generally score (theoretically) the same number of points and save some energy (crucial in this sport!).
I progressed to the 11th/12th play-off spot but my opponent had skipped off home early so by default I came 11th. Not a bad result (but probably not a fair reflection on those placed 12th to 15th).
As mentioned above, I trailed around photographing some of the other games too (see all the photos in this blog) and this was great fun – as photographing sports always is for me.
My Nikon D750 is excellent for this purpose. It has fantastic low-light focusing and tracking and is very light (for a pro camera). I mostly used the 70-200mm 2.8 Nikon zoom lens, and always with the monopod (that lens is very heavy).
Key to sports photography is not to be invasive. It being my first time photographing these sports I was careful to introduce my presence to competitors which is, firstly, courteous, and secondly means I am able to say to them to feed back to me if I am in any way a nuisance. Which I don't want to be. It's not my style.
Being familiar with the sport is also key which means you’re able to position yourself appropriately and also track the game so you can anticipate the rallies and where and when players will be in particular positions and what they might do.
I was able to try out both tight and wide shots in table tennis. If anything, a larger zoom would work better, as is often the case with sports photography. This was the same for tennis also.
Badminton was surprisingly tricky to produce adequate results. The best pictures seem to be smashing and lunging where the physicality of the athlete is the defining feature of the photograph.
Squash is particularly tricky. The brick-built venue (including the back wall) automatically leant itself to top-down shots from the rear, where the viewing platform was. I had a go at getting some tight shots also, particularly when the two players came together which draws a point of interest, but the players are still facing away and it's touch and go as to whether the ball is in shot, which always improves the picture. I imagine in venues with transparent sides, that the potential for front-facing shots is much more.
So that’s my write-up of my first venture playing and photographing the interesting sport of racketlon. It was a great day and I encourage you to check racketlon out further at racketlon UK, or at a similar organisation within your country.
Be seeing you.
A few other photos from the day…