Pro and Elite Training Weekend Recap
This past weekend, 8 elite rackets players (10 including 2 RCC tagger-ons) and not one, but TWO world champion coaches descended on the Second City, and more specifically the Racquet Club of Chicago, for NARA’s second installment of its Elite Rackets Training Weekend. While last year was a smashing success, this year would prove to be even more lively and instructive, as the Elite Weekend was combined with the Pro Weekend for the first time.
In attendance were 10 players representing six of the seven North American rackets clubs, as well as seven professionals. Joe Maiorana (DRC), Austin Marks (DRC), Louis Marien (MRC), Stuart Bailey (MRC), John Beam (NYR&T), Ben Lawrence (NYR&T), Conor Allen (RCC), Jay Hutton (RCC), Tim Carroll (RCOP), Andrew Peabody (T&R), and Brad Ursprung (T&R). Devin Vrabel and Chapin Lee, both Knott Stephens Tour veterans and RCC members, were also present and active through the weekend. George Sawrey-Cookson (T&R), Eli Segal (RCOP), Dan Fisher (MRC), Conor Medlow (RCC), Steve Toseland (DRC), Pete Dickinson (NYR&T), and Adrian Kemp (NYR&T). With the Elite and Pro events combined this year, the players were fortunate to receive instruction from both James Stout and Neil Smith. “Sensei Stout” and “Jedi Neil” imparted decades of wisdom from the first moment on court and tailored a comprehensive program to coach a variety of skill levels, body types, and fitness capabilities (more on this later).
Players arrived in Chicago on Friday, September 16th, to a warm welcome from the RCC pro shop staff including Conor Medlow, Steve Virgona, and last but certainly not least, John Cashman. Prior to training, several of the pros and elite players enjoyed one of Chicago’s finest breakfasts at The Third Coast, where Stout was thrilled to see his favorite milkshake on the menu. This was the first of many tremendous meals enjoyed by those in attendance. Much of Friday’s training focused on the serve and return – key weaknesses of this group, and of most players apparently. While Neil exhibited a more gentle and nurturing approach to instruction, Stout was more willing to belittle the Elite players and Pros, particularly those of his home club. This was no doubt a theme throughout the weekend, and consistent with prior coaching engagements. Friday evening, the Pros and Joes were treated to arguably the finest hospitality in the game, and headed down to the Men’s Grill Room for cocktails and dinner. Wine was consumed, dice were rolled, and steaks were devoured. It’s rumored that a certain Elite player took home a substantial sum on the backgammon table, enough to offset prior losses suffered at the CanAm, though neither the winner nor loser of this game of chance were available for comment as of this note. Highlight of the evening was the custom NARA cake prepared by the RCC staff - photos below.
Saturday morning, the Elite players emerged bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and joined Neil on Court Two for some much-needed instruction and drilling, whilst the professionals joined James on Court One. The players focused on point construction and patterns, yet another component of the game that needed significant attention. Following another trademark RCC lunch in the Players’ Lounge, the groups came together for doubles match play. James and Neil assembled balanced teams of amateurs and pros and the quality of play continued to improve thru the afternoon. A new wrinkle was added this year, with James and Neil introducing various penalties (court sprints) for lazy play, dangerous play, hitting the back wall on the fly, faulting on the serve, and a host of other transgressions deemed unacceptable to the marking officiant. Most matches finished with each player running 1-2 court sprints, though several times the tally exceeded 10, and once approached 15. As is tradition, several Pros/Elites were singled out by James, with their club affiliation playing no role in the excessive, somewhat cruel punishment. Needless to say, the conditioning portion was not a component of the pitch to the prospective elite players, and hopefully will be the first and last time such athletic feats are required on court.
By Saturday evening, the Pros and Joes were primed and ready for a night on the town, and the group enjoyed yet another outstanding meal, this time at The Tortoise Club, a local favorite. After disrupting many a nearby patrons’ evening, the group headed to a familiar haunt for both locals and those on tour - Butch McGuire’s - to finish off the evening on a strong note.
The following Sunday morning, the group assembled in the Players’ Lounge for a film session. James and Neil asked many rhetorical questions on the topics of clearing, lets, positioning, and a host of other subjects, which the group often answered incorrectly. Despite being “Elite”, the group quickly realized they were novices when it came to ensuring safe play and all came away with a new appreciation for the importance of safety on court. Consistent with last year’s film session, James was noticeably absent from the highlighted videos, and if featured, was always in the right. Sunday’s session finished with paired doubles matches which were all closely contested.
As expected, this was a tremendous weekend of camaraderie and racquets, and was the perfect way to kick off the 2023-2024 season. A massive thank you to James and Neil, The Racquet Club of Chicago, and NARA for putting on such a fantastic weekend event.
John D. Beam