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Tennis Is Old Hat for Tourney’s Manager

Times Staff Writer

Yes, as a matter of fact, the hat has seen better days, but what is a 67-year-old man who is set in his ways supposed to do, wear something else?

He tried that once and all it got him was ignored. Friends didn’t recognize him.

True, it is soiled above the brim, faded and a bit tattered, but so what? The hat shows its age. Is there something wrong with that?

Fred Lamb, its owner, thinks not.

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The hat is a symbol, he says, of something else old but still treasured by its caretakers--the Ojai Tennis Tournament.

The tournament, which begins today at 39 sites in and around the Ojai Valley, is in its 90th year. Lamb has presided over 31 of them as tournament manager. The hat has been around for 20.

Wimbledon has strawberries and cream, an international television audience, the cup and a $5.3-million purse. Ojai has 500 volunteers, orange juice, cookies and tea, Lamb’s hat, and, for the winners, medallions and handshakes.

Champions of the tournament’s open division have accounted for more than two dozen Wimbledon titles. Jimmy Connors played Ojai, as have Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer and Billie Jean King.

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But those are names from the past. Ojai’s present consists of players who are ranked with triple digits, if at all. This should be considered a direct result of the tournament’s purse: There are lots of zeroes, but no prime number to anchor them.

The funny thing is, the exclusive Ojai Valley Tennis Club, which organizes the tournament, couldn’t care less. The image of corporate sponsorship doesn’t suit its fancy. Fred and his hat might get lost in the shuffle of money.

Besides, enough players still come out--more than 1,500 this year--and so do a multitude of fans.

“Everybody wants to play Ojai. The name, it’s magic,” said Paul Xanthos, a high school and junior college tennis coach for 43 years. “It is the amateur tournament. When you mention Ojai, everybody wants to go there.”

Apparently, there is still something to be said for a tournament with riches of setting and substance.

Ojai’s history is as colorful as the flowers that adorn Libbey Park, where the tournament’s championship matches will be played on Sunday.

The tournament was started in 1896 by William Thacher, the associate headmaster at Ojai’s Thacher School. The school served as host during the tournament’s infancy, when matches were played on a dirt surface cleared of pebbles by hand.

Lamb, whose father was a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, attended Thacher and played in the Ojai twice as a high school student. He has participated in the tournament in some way for most of the past half century.

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Since 1954, Lamb has been a history teacher and tennis coach at his alma mater, where tuition is $14,350 and freshmen are required to have horses. His job at the school was at first considered temporary. He was hired to replace a teacher who was taking a one-year leave of absence. “It’s been a long year,” Lamb said while relaxing at the school last week after a tennis match.

He has only rarely thought of leaving. “I’ve been down there almost every day since I started teaching here,” said Lamb, gesturing toward Thacher’s tennis courts, “and I’m never tired of the vista and the broad sweep of the valley down below.”

Thacher School is nestled in the hills bordering Los Padres National Forest, tucked amid orange groves and oak trees at the northeast tip of the Ojai Valley. The view of the expanse below Lamb’s afternoon office is, indeed, inspiring.

On this afternoon it inspires memories.

Lamb played in five Ojai tournaments, but one in particular is most memorable. As a Thacher School freshman, Lamb registered to compete in the under-15 division, but it got overdrawn. So, rather than sitting out the tournament, Lamb requested any spot that might become available.

“We’ll find a place for you,” he was told. Lamb didn’t find out that he had been placed in the Open division until the day before the tournament.

sh 1st-Round Draw

His first-round draw: Jack Tidball, an NCAA champion from UCLA who then was the No. 4-ranked player in the nation.

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Worse, the match was to be played on the courts at Thacher, “so my humiliation took place before the entire school,” Lamb said.

Tidball dispatched Lamb, 6-0, 6-0, but the match was not com- pletely without excitement.

Lamb managed a 40-15 lead in one game, drawing a roar of anticipation from the home crowd.

“Everybody was real excited,” Lamb said. “He had to take his sweat shirt off. That was my big triumph. He realized he was in danger of losing a game, so then he poured it on.”

Eventual Champion

At least Lamb could say later that his exit from the tournament came courtesy of the eventual champion.

Lamb has been tournament manager since 1959, when he took over at the last minute after his predecessor became ill.

The job had been a paying one, but it didn’t stay that way for long. The tournament treasurer happened to be Newton K. Chase, Thacher’s headmaster and Lamb’s boss, who was convinced Lamb would be happier as a volunteer.

“Wouldn’t it be rather embarrassing to accept even a modest check?” Chase asked Lamb. “Yes, of course,” was the sheepish reply.

Chase is probably the last person to bully Lamb in relation to his position with the tournament.

As manager, Lamb has the responsibility of judge and jury when it comes to defaults, and he rules with an iron hand. There are few good excuses when a player’s tardiness forces the tournament to run behind schedule.

“I hear some very tragic stories that make me feel just terrible,” Lamb said with more than just a trace of a smile.

One player claimed he was late because he was in jail. Another time, USC’s team claimed it had been stuck in the elevator of a Ventura hotel for 45 minutes.

“A UCLA guy was seen lurking around,” Lamb quipped.

750 Matches

With about 750 matches scheduled for today and hundreds more over the course of the tournament, Lamb is likely to be faced with more than one request for default. The decision is essentially his, although, Lamb says, “if they take affront, or are outraged by my unfairness, then they can always appeal to the referee.”

The process became somewhat comical during the four years Lamb served in both capacities.

Said Lamb: “They would ask for an appeal and I would turn around, tip my hat and say, ‘Is there a problem?’ ”

The top players are rarely involved in controversies, Lamb is happy to report, but he can remember one exception.

Stan Smith, the Wimbledon champ who is among Lamb’s very favorite players, was once 40 minutes late for a final.

‘No Stan Smith’

“He was always on time and always very generous about the way he played and wouldn’t you know, after I boasted about him, 1 o’clock passes and no Stan Smith,” Lamb said. “Ten minutes after and people started to ask, ‘Are you going to default Stan Smith?’ ”

When 20 minutes--the normal grace period--had passed, Lamb was confronted by a player he had defaulted earlier in the tourna- ment. “You’re making exceptions, now aren’t you, just because it’s Stan Smith,” the man said.

That was exactly what he was doing, Lamb conceded. But not just because it was Smith. A large contingent of fans had paid money to witness the finals and Lamb wanted to give them every opportunity to see a good show.

Finally, Smith appeared, calmly sauntering across the lawn before checking in.

“I said, ‘Mr. Smith, I wouldn’t believe this,’ ” Lamb said.

Smith: “What?”

Lamb: “You let me down. I said you were always 20 minutes early.”

Smith: “I am 20 minutes early.”

Lamb: “No, you’re 40 minutes late.”

Smith: “But it’s . . . oh no . . . daylight savings . . . “

“He turned as red as his hair,” Lamb said.

Delays, however, have been rare over the years. Considering the tournament is for amateurs--and run by them as well--things usual ly go off without a hitch.

Donating Their Time

Exactly how it is all so smoothly accomplished Lamb can’t say. In all, about 500 people--some of whom have never played a game of tennis--donate their time and talent each year.

“The tennis club does so much in the way of preparation that the actual running of the tournament is really amazingly simple,” Lamb said. Still, he admits, “there have been times I remember thinking that there must be easier ways of passing time.”

Easier, perhaps, but not necessarily better.

Ten days after the conclusion of this year’s event there will be a meeting to start the planning for next year’s tournament. Lamb plans on being there for the 32nd time, his 21st with the hat--a trademark that will likely follow him to the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame.

Lamb, whose Thacher teams have won seven Southern Section tennis championships, is scheduled to be inducted during a ceremony on May 27.

It’s a prestigious feather in his cap, but not more important than the cap itself. “I’ve worn it so long now that it’s become part of the tournament,” Lamb said of his chapeau. “It used to be bright red, but the dust and sweat of the ages have put an end to that.”


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