In various sports there is always some discussion as to who was the best player. For instance, was Babe Ruth or Willie Mays the greatest baseball player? Was Muhammad Ali or Jack Dempsey the greatest boxer? In professional basketball, was Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell the greatest all-time center? Although there would be considerable discussion in each aforementioned sport, there wouldn’t be any discussion as to who was the greatest women’s racket star in Western New York annals. That honor would go to the legendary Ethel Marshall, who passed away June 12 at 89.
I was fortunate to have been a longtime friend and admirer of Ethel and her achievements. Her record speaks for itself. She was the women’s national singles badminton champion from 1946-53 and never lost a match during that time. Overall, she won 20 national senior badminton titles: Ladies Doubles (2), U.S. Senior Ladies Doubles (11), U.S. Senior Mixed Doubles (4) and U.S. Masters Mixed Doubles (3).
In tennis, her record borders on the miraculous. Thirteen years in a row she was the Muny Open Women’s Singles champion and won 16 straight Muny Open Doubles titles with her longtime friend and playing partner, the late Bea Massman.
She is also in seven Halls of Fame — National Badminton Hall of Fame (1956), Amherst Avenue of Athletes (1960), Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame (Inaugural Class 1991), Senior National Badminton Hall of Fame (2002), Bennett High School Sports Hall of Fame (Inaugural Class 2002), USA Badminton Walk of Fame (2003) and the Buffalo Tennis Hall of Fame (2005).
In 1957, Ethel was a member of the Uber Cup Team that won the world title for the U.S. It was the American team to win “the Davis Cup of badminton.” Perhaps her most prestigious award occurred in 1996 when she was prominently featured on the cover of U.S. Badminton’s 60th Jubilee Fact Book, an honor that was bestowed upon her as arguably the greatest women’s badminton player in the history of the sport.
To understand how outstanding her accomplishments were, one has to consider that badminton is played with a great amount of wrist snap and tennis requires hitting the ball with topspin. However, Marshall played tennis using a variety of slices, drop shots, an unerring overhead and a devastating serve-and-volley game that was practically unheard of in women’s professional and top amateur ranks. She was like a race horse on both the badminton and tennis courts. In addition, she was an extremely intelligent player who responded to all types of strategies by opponents.
Many people are not aware of how hard it is to play badminton at a top level. They think of the backyard game in which everyone has fun and bats the shuttlecock around. When Marshall was featured in the U.S. Jubilee book, it was stated that “badminton is the world’s fastest racquet sport, featuring quick reflexes and superb conditioning. In badminton, a shuttlecock smash often reaches speeds of 200 mph in top international competition.”
Badminton is among the most played sports in the world.
In addition to being a great racket star, Marshall taught badminton with great devotion for many years to local players. She had a reputation for getting as much satisfaction out of that as for winning tournaments, and she was beloved by her students. In an interview, Marshall was asked why she stayed so active in promoting badminton in Western New York.
Her reply: “Basketball, baseball and football are all great sports. However, you can’t play them all of your life. Badminton is a game that can be learned by anyone, regardless of their age or ability level. Life is composed of rules and regulations. Badminton reinforces this. The game also instills discipline.”
In 1996, Ethel was honored for her devotion and involvement to badminton when she received the following letter of citation from President Clinton.
“As a national champion and coach, you have played an important role in shaping the character and values of our nation’s youth. Your dedication to sportsmanship and your pursuit of excellence have helped to ensure that the young people you teach will remain active in their communities for years to come. You are truly making a positive difference.”