Stout the star of niche sports rackets
The all-time leading grand-slam title winner Roger Federer, the master of the clay court Rafael Nadal, a pioneer and international hall of fame inductee, Pete Sampras, the only winner of all nine Masters 1000 tournaments, Novak Djokovic, all familiar household names and icons of the racket sport world ... But how about multiple world champion James Stout? ... No?
To many, Stout’s inclusion among that list of sporting titans may seem surprising and highly questionable but when you consider his enviable list of sporting accolades, present World No 1, defending world singles champion and defending world doubles champion, arguably the more suitable question may be why does the Bermudian sportsman’s name not immediately trigger the same instant recognition?
The answer may lay in the fact that Stout’s longstanding dominance has existed in the obscure and unfamiliar sport of rackets.
Closely related to squash, rackets began life as an 18-century pastime in London’s King’s Bench and Fleet debtors prisons, then spread to schools across Britain, Ireland, United States, and Canada, before fading into the shadows of its more well-known counterparts to now enjoy a somewhat cultlike following in its modern existence.
“It’s a very unusual sport and no where near as common as it was back in time,” conceded Stout, who was introduced to the sport as a teenage boarding-school student at Cheltenham College in England, having spent his earlier school years attending Saltus Grammar School in Pembroke.
“It was a chance introduction to the sport for me, but I had a squash background and for me it was like squash on speed!
“I was just totally taken aback by the pace of the game and as a 13-year-old boy I was immediately hooked.
“There was also an element of danger to it that I hadn’t come across in squash before. You play on a concrete court with old wooden rackets and a handmade ball that is similar to a cricket ball in weight.
“If you’re not careful and get hit you can be in some trouble and that’s why some people walk way after their first time playing. I guess you either love it or hate it, but I fell in love with the game and that excitement never went away.”
Stout’s affection for the sport was also matched by natural aptitude as his early promise reaped rewards in the shape of victories in both the Foster Cup and the First Pairs Cup two years in succession, in 2000 and 2001.
In 2003, at the age of 19, his attention turned to squash, with a move Antwerp in Belgium allowing Stout to pursue a professional squash career and appearances on the PSA tour internationally.
Notable tournaments quickly followed with inclusion in the Bermuda team to compete at the World Team Squash Championships in Vienna, Austria, in the same year, before representing his country again in 2006 at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne Australia, and at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Cartagena, Colombia. However, rackets was never far from Stout’s attention and a unique opportunity late in 2006 in the form of a job opportunity as teaching professional at the New York Rackets and Tennis Club in the US, redirected the then 22-year-old’s focus back to the sport.
Success on the court immediately followed with successive Western Open rackets championship titles, before pivotal victories in 2008 in the US Open rackets final and British Open rackets championship set Stout up for his defining moment in rackets.
By virtue of those two victories, he was granted the right to challenge then world champion Harry Foster with the Bermudian ace ultimately prevailing over the two-legged encounter in New York and then London to see him crowned the second-youngest rackets World Champion.
It is a title that Stout is still yet to relinquish having defended his crown three times in 2010, 2015 and 2017, while also adding the doubles title to his collection along with partner Jonathan Larken in 2016, before successfully defending it earlier this year.
“It is always great to be able to firstly win and then defend a world title,” added the 34-year-old.
“It’s always very exciting to defend any title and it’s great to be able to prove why you deserve to be ranked as world No 1 by keeping hold of titles.
“I also get pleasure from the fact that I can still beat the younger players coming through. They are certainly the future, but it’s nice to beat them and show people that experience still counts for something.”
Turning his attention away from the court, Stout is hopeful that his beloved sport’s recent resurgence can continue in the coming years, albeit among its small but passionate following.
“It is a real niche sport and perhaps is considered a cult sport because it has a small but passionate following by those who love it,” he said.
“I hope it doesn’t just fade away and can remain an actively participated sport. It is difficult because there are limited courts around the world but new ones have been built in the last ten years, which is really encouraging to see.
“All it needs is to become popular in one or two more major cities and get young school pupils playing it, that would make a huge difference.
“It is moving in the right direction though and where it just used to be played by just boys we now have a women’s World Championships; it is certainly opening up the game.”
While he may not enjoy the same level recognition and adulation of some of his previously mentioned counterparts in tennis, there is certainly no resentment from Stout, who still can not quite believe the opportunities this unique sport has afforded him throughout his life, both on and off the court.
“I can’t describe how grateful I am to this sport,” said Stout, who has no intentions of relinquishing his crown just yet. “I work in midtown Manhattan at a private club, get to teach rackets daily, travel to tournaments and meet fascinating industry leaders. I never thought it would allow me to live this sort of lifestyle.
“I just love rackets and going out and hitting the ball. It just makes me happy competing, someone will have to come along rip the title out of my hands. I want to keep competing at the highest level for another ten years, maybe more”
If his dominance can continue for another decade, then who knows, perhaps the name James Stout will become just as familiar as some of his fellow sporting greats.