Dexter St Louis
The evergreen champion
What were you up to in 1983?
That’s assuming you were around at all or old enough to recall, of course. For some, it seems so very long ago, a time when the PNM was the still the only party to govern independent Trinidad and Tobago, when West Indies cricket ruled the world (despite a stunning upset to India in the World Cup final that year) and when one United States dollar was worth TT$2.40.
Hardly anything has remained constant since that time. However in the field of sport, there has been one notable exception, and by claiming his fifth Caribbean men’s singles title on Saturday night in St Lucia, Dexter St Louis not only remains unchallenged as this country’s top table tennis player, but must also surely be considered our greatest enduring champion in any discipline.
It was as a 15-year-old that he became both junior and senior national champion. Now, at the age of 45, he remains at the top of the tree, not only in the nation but in the region following victory over the Dominican Republic’s Emil Santos in the final in St Lucia at the weekend. As in his previous triumphs at local or Caribbean level, this latest achievement grabs the headlines in today’s sports pages and will enjoy a measure of prominence on sportscasts on television and radio for another 24 hours or so.
But table tennis has dimmed considerably in the national sporting consciousness, and, it has to be acknowledged, for all of his success at home, within the region and professionally in France for two decades, St Louis has never really come close to reaching the highest heights in the sport that had dominated more than two-thirds of his life.
No doubt this reality would have contributed to the often lukewarm response to his successes. That, and the fact that his playing career has coincided with the exploits of some of our greatest sporting performers of all time, means that he `has always had to be content with life in the background even as the names that overshadowed him and everyone else have long since retired.
Brian Lara, the finest West Indies batsman of the modern era and one of the best ever, was still at the Harvard clinic when St Louis was being crowned national champion for the first time. It would be another seven years before the “Prince of Port of Spain” played his first Test. His final match in West Indies colours came at the 2007 World Cup by which time he had twice broken the record for the highest individual score in Tests, set a new standard for the most career runs in Test cricket and had led the West Indies to the Champions Trophy title in 2004.
In 1983, Ato Boldon’s sprinting prowess was some distance away from being discovered. Of course, when it was identified and refined the son of a Trinidadian-Jamaican union wasted little time in moving through the gears from doing the sprint double at the World Juniors in 1992 to becoming senior world champion in the 200 metres five years later. He also earned medals in the sprints at successive Olympic Games in Atlanta and Sydney and played a key role in establishing Trinidad and Tobago as a force to be reckoned with in the relays.
Thirty years ago the sporting public of this land was just beginning to fall in love with a skilful little footballer from Laventille who they dubbed “The Little Magician.” Russell Latapy was soon be followed by another precocious talent, this time from Tobago, onto the national team. Dwight Yorke and Latapy were key members of the “Strike Squad” that came within a point of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup finals and both subsequently enjoyed long and outstanding club careers in Europe, Yorke playing a pivotal role in an historic treble in his very first season with Manchester United in 1999.
They were back in national colours to help the team finally qualify for the World Cup finals in 2006 (even though Latapy played just a few minutes at the end of the final group game against Paraguay in Germany)and only hung up their Trinidad and Tobago uniforms for the last time less than four years ago.
So I suppose it is understandable that St Louis suffers by comparison to those achievers, even though his first significant accomplishment precedes the unfolding of those outstanding careers and, as the evidence of his successes in St Lucia - including yet another mixed doubles title with step-daughter Rheann Chung - illustrates, there is still considerable life and competitiveness left in that aging body.
In determining the holder of the title of our most durable sporting champion, golfer Stephen Ames appears as the only real challenger to St Louis, given that he first made the national team for the Hoerman Cup as a 16-year-old in 1980, when he set a new course record of 66 at Sandy Lane in Barbados and continues to compete on the United States PGA circuit where he has won four titles and earned over US$19.5 million in career prize money.
Over the past two seasons though, the Canada-based player has struggled, managing just three top-25 finishes. But he is only a year away from his 50th birthday which offers the prospect of extending his career to the PGA Senior Tour for several years to come.
At the moment though, I’ll give the durability title to 45-year-old St Louis, Caribbean champion one more time.