Youth team says hello, birdie

Town once again to host US junior badminton tournament

Nicole Frevord stretches to make a play during badminton practice. Marblehead Youth Badminton will host a tourney beginning June 28. Nicole Frevord stretches to make a play during badminton practice. Marblehead Youth Badminton will host a tourney beginning June 28. (Globe Correspondent / Travis Dove)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / June 26, 2008

There's a difference between the badminton you're thinking about and the badminton Henry Zauriyeu plays.

Your badminton happens somewhere between the last hamburger and the first hot dog at the cookout, the net is about four feet wide, and you only keep score until they bring out the banana pudding.

The badminton Zauriyeu plays is played with a birdie flying his way at about the speed of a sports car and intensity dripping with every point, because he knows he's competing against some of the best players in the country.

"They're different," he said. "That's the game, and we play the sport."

Zauriyeu is 14 now, but he is one of the dozens of kids who have been playing badminton almost yearround for the Marblehead Youth Badminton team since they were knee-high.

He was on the team four years ago, when Marblehead hosted the US Junior Nationals. Zauriyeu and his teammates will be back this weekend, with the town of Marblehead again serving as tournament host, welcoming teams to the high school from Maryland to California.

Tournament play kicks off on Saturday morning and wraps up with the finals on Wednesday.

Marblehead coach Melinda Keszthelyi, a three-time Hungarian national champion, has high hopes for her team this weekend, particularly the U-17 doubles tandem of Jennifer Perry and Emily Schwartz, who placed second in the under-13 girls' doubles and tied for third in the U-13 girls' singles at the Junior Nationals in 2004.

"I'm waiting for the gold," said Keszthelyi. "Maybe this year somebody can bring the gold home."

Marblehead was already a hot spot for badminton players, with tons of regulars dropping through the Gut'n Feathers Club to play a few games. But Keszthelyi said hosting the tournament here helped dramatically with exposure.

The program went from a handful of kids when Keszthelyi started coaching the team eight years ago to nearly a hundred this year.

Everyone hears about the game differently.

Max Cushman's dad played all the time, and eventually got his mother interested. Then they passed it down to their 12-year-old son.

Max Clayman learned about it in gym class, and went looking for a team. Perry and Jenn Bachner both found out about it from Emily Schwartz, who was on the team before them.

Word of mouth is the best advertisement. Bachner said it's important that Marblehead hosts the tournament, which will allow locals to see the sport first-hand.

"My friends come and my family's friends come and they all have the same reaction - they're shocked," said Bachner, who plays U-17 doubles with her twin sister Allison.

Shock is the general response of people who are not familiar with competitive badminton.

At the elite levels, shots scream past at 200 miles per hour. He doesn't have a radar gun, but 14-year-old Philip Donlon guesses he sees shots in the 100-mile-per-hour range.

"They just don't know how fast it goes," he said.

The speed of the game is what makes it both difficult and exciting. But the untrained eye might have a hard time picking up the nuances.

"A lot of things make it look easy, but it's definitely hard," Zauriyeu said. "There's a lot that you have to work on. Footwork, getting around so you don't have to work. There's all these different shots like drop, smash, clear, drag. Then there's a lot of mind involved in it like where you hit it, where you place it."

When it is played right, the game is skillful. After their silver medal performance in 2004, Perry and Schwartz qualified for the Pan American Junior Badminton Championships in Lima, Peru. The Marblehead youth team has traveled across the country for tournaments.

"I think it's so much different from other sports because you get so many different opportunities," Perry said.

"You get to go to Peru and Hungary and Canada and California on weekends just to play in tournaments, and in no other sport do you get to do that. A lot of people don't realize you can go to Europe and South America just to play badminton."

If this weekend's tournament can do one thing, it can enlighten people.

At least enough so that they know the difference between what they think of badminton and what the game actually is.

"My brothers joke and say we can still beat you next year in the backyard or whatever," Jenn Bachner said.

"It's good to have them actually see how it is."

Julian Benbow can be reached at

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