Joseph Francis Frank Devlin was born in Dublin only nineteen days into the last century, on January 19th, 1900.
The Irishman recalls that the first picture of him playing badminton was of a “large straw hat sitting on top of the small body of a child of three or four years old, who with his father is playing a game of Badminton in the garden of a Dublin house, against two ladies in sailor hats and long voluminous skirts, my mother and my aunt.”
The young boy with the straw hat started playing seriously in the first Irish tournaments that resumed after the First World War. He soon became one of the most successful players in the history of badminton. His successes might have been limited to the British Isles, but the Irishman nevertheless had an impressive reign of 18 titles at the All England Championships from 1922 to 1931. His domination was to the degree that he won the Triple Crown in the years of 1926, 1927, and 1929. He won 6 titles in men’s singles, of which 5 were in succession, plus 7 titles in men’s doubles and 5 more titles in mixed doubles. His grand total of 18 titles secured his position as the second most successful player in the history of the All England Championships. To complete his domination of the British Isles, he rounded up 6 titles at the Irish Open and 2 at the Scottish Open.
However, his success with Gordon Mack – with whom he won 6 All England doubles titles – was not due to luck. In their youth, the two men lived close to each other which enabled them to develop their skills together. He also won 2 titles in mixed doubles with Kitty McKane with whom he was briefly engaged.
Before he became the top player of the Roaring Twenties, Devlin’s future on the badminton court seemed bleak. He had lost half a heel from osteomyelitis at the age of 12. The writer, Pat Davis, called Devlin’s bad luck “a blessing in disguise.” With limited activities to do while bedridden, Devlin passed the time by hitting a shuttle against the wall using only his wrist.
Already at that young age, Devlin was fascinated by the technical side of the game. During his recovery, he discovered that the secret “was to play with (his) wrist and not (his) whole arm.” To make things more difficult, he “pulled out some of the feathers out of the shuttle so as to deceive (himself) as to its flight, and became proficient at playing round the pictures with a minimum of damage to them.”
His constant search of new skills made it no surprise that he is regarded as the first player to use the overhead backhand clear. Devlin was not content with only discovering and perfecting technical skills for himself. Upon his retirement from the competitive circuit in 1931, Devlin decided to share them with the badminton community as a coach as well as a writer.
Indeed, after his domination of the British courts from 1922 to 1931, the bespectacled Irishman took on coaching as a full-time professional. Devlin was the pioneer of full-time badminton coaching. His coaching career first took him to the Winnipeg Winter Club in 1931 and then to Baltimore 6 years later.
Frank Devlin not only contributed to badminton with his racket but also with his pen, as he was the occasional editor of the Badminton Gazette, the official organ of the Badminton Association of England. After moving to North America, he authored many books, amongst which Badminton for All (1937), Short Cuts to Good Badminton (1939) and Sports Illustrated Badminton (1967) can be named.
In Badminton for All, Devlin gives ageless advice to players, “approach your matches with a fighting spirit, fight all the time and never give up hope until the final point has been called against you.” The Irishman also professed a vision of the sport that might be challenged today: “I do not consider that it is necessary to go into strict training for many months before an important tournament, by which I mean give up smoking, all forms of alcohol and keep very early hours.”
Frank Devlin was still actively coaching in his eighties and passed away on October 27th, 1988.
His legacy was kept alive by his daughters, Sue and Judy. Both his daughters became equally as successful as their father. Amongst countless successes, the Devlin sisters won the All England on 6 occasions as partners in women’s doubles. Frank Devlin and his daughter, Judy, were inducted into the IBF Hall of Fame in 1997.
1986 – IBF Distinguished Service Award
1997 – IBF Hall of Fame
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
1934-94… Sixty years of the IBF (IBF)
All England 2010 Official Programme
Badminton for All (J.F. Devlin)
Encyclopaedia of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Guinness Book of Badminton (Pat Davis)
International Badminton – the first 75 years (IBF)
International Badminton Federation Handbook (1966 Edition)
Smash (Badminton Ireland)
World Badminton (Magazine)
-- By Yves Lacroix