BANGKOK—The House of Golden Teardrops, nestled among the sprawling northern suburbs of Bangkok, seems an unlikely hothouse for a new generation of badminton stars.
But this dessert factory has already produced one world champion, and there could be more in the pipeline if its owners have any say in the matter.
Thailand’s teenage world champion Ratchanok Inthanon first picked up a badminton racket here as a young child, after her parents moved to the plant from their home near the border with Cambodia to help make sweet dumplings and other Thai treats. The owner, Kamala Thongkorn, worried that young Ratchanok might run into vats of boiling water and super-heated sugar dotting the factory. She suggested that the girl might like to play badminton at the court built off to the side of the plant. Ms. Kamala’s sons were already showing promise and went on to represent their country.
Today, one of Ms. Kamala’s sons, Pattapol Ngernsrisuk, 33, is Ms. Ratchanok’s coach. And the single badminton court attached to the factory has mushroomed into an 18-court badminton school that has attracted players from around the world–and is giving Thailand hope that it can churn out a slew of new players to compete at the highest levels of one of Asia’s most popular sports.
Eighteen-year-old Ms. Ratchanok’s victory at last week’s world championships in Guangzhou, China, has already re-energized interest in a sport dominated by the likes of Indonesia, South Korea and China. Ms. Ratchanok is now a bona fide celebrity, retelling her rags-to-riches story on television talk shows and hobnobbing with the country’s prime minister. On Wednesday, she took part in a special exhibition doubles match with Bangkok’s unusually fleet-footed police chief, defeating her opponents with a flurry of deft slices and careening smashes.
While Ms. Ratchanok’s natural talent is readily apparent to all, some badminton insiders are pointing to the less-well-known influence of the Banthongyod sweet factory.
Ms. Kamala used her earnings from the factory to hire a Chinese coach to train her sons as their careers blossomed. As her interest in the sport grew, she also built more courts and set loose the coach, Xie Zhuhua, on some of the other up-and-coming players, including a young Ms. Ratchanok.
Seven years ago, Mr. Pattapol hung up his racket to help Mr. Xie coach a new batch of youngsters–and also teach his young charges some lessons learned from the international badminton circuit.
Mr. Pattapol, who represented Thailand in the 2004 Olympics and was once ranked No. 9 as a doubles player, bristles at suggestions that Ms. Ratchanok’s success is the result of applying Chinese coaching techniques.
“At first we coached the children following Chinese methods, which are very good for building up strength and speed,” he says as children thrash at shuttlecocks behind him. “But I often wondered why we couldn’t win. We would still lose to Malaysia and Indonesia.”
“So,” Mr. Pattapol explains, “I added things I learned from international players to develop more skills. I needed to add more weapons–a knife and a gun,” or the fluid combination of the right shots and timing to kill an opponent.
Today the school has 250 students, including around 40 who board at the premises, and 12 coaches, including three Chinese nationals who help build up the students’ speed and stamina. Mr. Pattapol’s is planning to install more exercise bikes and other gym equipment to better develop his players’ fitness, and he’s looking at adapting some techniques learned from sport psychologists, too.
“The Chinese coaches mostly stay at the school, while I travel on the road with the players,” he says. “We have to show that we Thais can create our own champions.”
Twelve-year-old Pattarasuda Chaiwan is one of Mr. Pattapol’s new protégés. Originally from Lampang in northern Thailand, Pattarasuda began playing at the age of five, mimicking her elder brother. She was invited to join the school after meeting Mr. Pattapol at a tournament in Chiang Mai, with her school fees paid by Ms. Kamala, who also sponsored Ms. Ratchanok. The matriarch’s investment quickly paid off, with Pattarasuda winning a junior tournament in Singapore at the age of 10 and defending her title the following year.
Pattarasuda says she is now training hard to compete at her first senior event, the upcoming All Thailand.
“I sometimes feel tired because of all the training,” Pattarasuda says, “but I don’t give up. I want to be a champion, just like Mei,” referring to Ms. Ratchanok by her nickname.
The two share a bedroom at the school dormitory, where Pattarasuda rises every morning at 5.30 a.m. to fit in 90 minutes of practice before going to classes at a regular school at 7 a.m.
The long-term goal from all this smashing and lobbing is to win Thailand a gold medal the next Olympics in 2016, says Ms. Kamala. It’s a goal Ms. Ratchanok says she shares.
First, though, she wants to defeat one of the few players she has never beaten, China’s former world champion Wang Yihan, whom she might face at the China Masters tournament in September.
Then, maybe, Ms. Ratchanok says, she and her teammates might be able to go to the beach for a bit of relaxation.