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A Tradition Lives On : The Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament Has Changed Somewhat in 86 Years, but It’s Still a Happening

Times Staff Writer

Tradition is still on center court at the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, still plugging away from the baseline, but at 86, it has managed to lose a step or two.

Imagine this: The annual Friday night dance, for years an exercise in evening gowns and suits and ties, has gone mod. Yep, no more pomp and circumstance for the players.

This year, the musical entertainment was provided by a local Top-40 cover band called--brace yourself--The Bumps. And the kids these days, what are you gonna do with them, showing up dressed like their favorite MTV rock stars?

“I don’t know what the kids are wearing now,” says Ruby Morrison, president of the sponsoring Ojai Valley Tennis Club. “Let’s just say that, now, it’s a lot more casual.”

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The tournament, too, has succumbed--allowing itself to be dragged into the trappings of technology and commercialism.

Why, the player draw and court schedule, once painstakingly mapped out by hand, is now accomplished with the aid of--gasp--an Apple computer.

And the tournament directors, who resolutely fought to keep the Ojai atmosphere genteel and pure, finally relented to allow the logo of a sponsoring sporting goods company to be bannered at courtside.

First, it was yellow tennis balls. Then, short pants, colored tennis dresses and graphite rackets.

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And, now, this.

All, however, is not lost. There are still certain things one can expect while attending the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament. Or, as the locals and those in the know simply call it, “The O-Hi.”

At “The O-Hi,” you can still:

--Wake up to a long day of viewing tennis with a free cup (or two or three) of freshly squeezed orange juice. Wimbledon has its strawberries and cream, Ojai has its O.J.

--Saunter over to The Tea Tent in the late afternoon to sample a cup and some cookies, served up by smiling, immaculately attired attendants, who pour from polished silver urns into fine white china. Careful, though, don’t spill anything on the white linen and stay clear of the lily table arrangements.

--Chat with players and coaches between matches. Even invite ‘em over to share in your Sunday picnic. There are no bodyguards or agents or promoters to buffer the crowd from the competitors. And there is plenty of room to spread out alongside the courts at Libbey Park, on its grassy slopes and beneath the shade of the oak and eucalyptus trees. Mingling is allowed.

--Watch more than 1,300 of the finest amateur tennis players in Southern California compete for trophies in 24 different divisions, ranging from 14-and-under juniors to Pac-10 collegiate competition to open men’s and women’s play.

--Participate in what is commonly advertised as “the oldest and largest amateur tennis tournament held in one location in the United States.”

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That’s the part Ojai oldtimers and veterans like the best. This tournament has tradition, they’ll tell you. And prestige.

The history, the setting, the ambiance, the spirit of conviviality--this is how tennis was meant to be played when the game had its origins more than a century ago.

“Aside from Wimbledon, this is the only civilized tournament left,” says Harry Maiden, a former Wimbledon official who served as a chair judge at Ojai for 20 years.

“The general atmosphere here is of an old English country tournament,” said Joe Bixler, retired president of the Southern California Tennis Assn. “Tennis started as a garden game--on the lawns of fancy homes in England. Ojai’s a garden--that’s what it amounts to. It’s the whole atmosphere of the park and the valley.”

Like Wimbledon, Ojai started out as a town that played host to a sporting event, only to be gradually transcended by the event itself. “The O-Hi” means tennis and the more O-Hi’s you attend, the more impressive the status.

“This is my 10th Ojai,” spectators will boast. “When I was at The Ojai in ’76 . . . “

It becomes a game of Can-You-Top-This? and Bixler has the stuff to top them all. This is Bixler’s 61st Ojai. He debuted in 1925 as a player for Los Angeles High and still makes the annual trek to this small artists’ community (pop. 6,800) located 15 miles inland from Ventura.

Bixler has tales to tell.

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He’ll recount how Perry T. Jones, founder of the Los Angeles Tennis Club, used to venture to the tournament by taking a train to Ventura and then ride into Ojai on horse and buggy.

He’ll speak in amazement of May Sutton Bundy, who played in 28 Ojai tournaments through 1928--while she had four kids.

And he’ll laugh as he talks about one of Jack Kramer’s first trips to Ojai as a student at Montebello High. “Players were given $2 a day for allowance then, and Jack lost all of his in a poker game,” Bixler said. “He ended up living on the free orange juice, tea and cookies they serve in the tent.”

Most of all, Bixler remembers the names who have played at Ojai since its inception in 1895. The tournament was discontinued briefly during World War I.

“I bet there are 20 people who have played here and went on to win Wimbledon,” Bixler says.

The list of Ojai alumni does bear a close resemblance to a tennis Hall of Fame roster.

Billie Jean King played Ojai. So did Jimmy Connors, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Bill Tilden, Pancho Gonzalez, Tony Trabert, Ellsworth Vines, Maureen Connolly, Bobby Riggs, Don Budge, Helen Wills, Alice Marble, Tracy Austin.

John McEnroe never played Ojai. It’s a good thing, too, because the croaking of the frogs that hang out in a stream that borders Court 1 would just about drive Mac . . . well, hopping mad.

But McEnroe’s little brother, Patrick, was here, competing in the Pac-10 division along with his Stanford teammates.

The Pac-10 team tournament is the major event here. Six schools (USC, UCLA, Stanford, California, Arizona and Arizona State) vie for a silver cup called “The William L. Thatcher Challenge Trophy,"named after the founder of the Ojai Tournament.

But there are 23 other divisions--consisting of men and women, singles and doubles--including independent colleges, junior colleges, high schools, juniors (16-and-under and 14-and-under) and open invititational (all ages).

Ostensibly, a player could debut at Ojai at 12 or so and keep coming back for years, moving up through each division. Some do.

Kevin Platt of San Diego has been to eight Ojai tournaments. He won doubles championships on the community college level (1981) and the independent college level (1983), and now, as a tennis coach at the University of San Diego, he returned to play in the open division this year.

“I was trying to make it three-for-three divisions, but it didn’t quite work,” said Platt, who lost in Saturday’s quarterfinals. “It’s still fun to play here. You get away from everything, come to this little town set in the valley. It’s relaxing, and very conducive to high-quality tennis.

“There are no distractions here, no dance places. All you do is concentrate on tennis.”

Platt also came back for a different reason this spring: To recruit. Everyone who’s anyone in Southern California tennis comes to Ojai, so for college scouts, the tournament is four days of sneak previews.

“All the great players are here except those with injuries,” Platt said. “It’s great for recruiting. You get to see all the players and how they play under the pressure of a big tournament. This is the tournament for juniors and for the junior colleges. It’s the biggest tournament outside of the state finals.”

It’s been that way for 86 years, the social event of the spring for the Southern California tennis community. And already, plans are under way for O-Hi No. 87.

“The Ojai is always held on the last full weekend in April,” says tournament manager Fred Lamb. “People know that. When they leave, they book reservations for the next year.”

And another Ojai tradition continues.


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