High School Players Mix With Collegians for a Weekend of Tennis in the Country


It’s late April and spring break has come and gone. For most students and teachers, these are the dog days of the school year. Nearly two more months of classes before summer vacation, and no relief in sight.

For high school tennis players, however, this is the best time of the school year. While their classmates suffer through another biology lecture, they are treated like royalty in the sleepy little town of Ojai, about 100 miles northwest of Orange County geographically but seemingly a million miles from reality.

For 96 years, the top high school tennis players in Southern California have been coming to Ojai--a town of fewer than 8,000 people--for an odd but refreshing mix of high-intensity tennis in a low-intensity environment. While the future stars of college and professional tennis grind it out on the hard courts of Libbey Park in downtown Ojai or the private courts of multimillion-dollar French provincial- and California ranch-style homes, spectators take in Ojai tournament customs such as complimentary freshly squeezed orange juice in the mornings and tea and cookies in the afternoons.


“Every time I go up there, I think it’s not a part of California,” said Servite junior Ryan Moore, who won the Ojai boys’ 14 division in 1993 as an eighth-grader. “It’s almost like a different state. It’s totally getting away from city life. It’s like life in the country, but it’s a good change.

“Everything is different. The town, the tournament, the weather. It can get pretty hot because you’re sucked in behind all those mountains. I’ve yet to experience a cold Ojai.”

On Thursday morning, Moore and about 1,400 other players will begin to experience the 97th edition of the oldest and one of the largest amateur tennis tournaments in the United States, the Ojai Valley Tennis tournament. High school players will come from as far as Fresno, San Diego and Portola Valley and as close as Santa Barbara and Ventura, two nearby cities.

The tournament was founded in 1895 by William Thacher, a teacher at Ojai’s Thacher School, which was named after his brother, the school’s founder. Thacher was quoted as saying the purpose of the tournament was “to bring our youth together in a wholesome atmosphere with a spirit of sportsmanship and clean play.”

What makes “The Ojai” unique is its inclusion of players from nearly all age groups. Although it’s regarded as one of the top junior tournaments in Southern California, the Ojai is also home to the Pacific-10, Big West and California community college championships. There is also an independent division for small-college players and an open division for former college or professional players. In all, there are 34 divisions.

The main attractions are the Pac-10 men’s and women’s championships and the 10 junior divisions. The main site is Libbey Park, which, like almost everything else in Ojai, is built between majestic oak and sycamore trees. The Pac-10 men play all their matches at Libbey Park, the Pac-10 women play at the Ojai Valley Country Club.


Juniors play early-round matches at various sites around Ojai and the Ojai Valley, including private courts of some of Ojai’s residents. On Saturday, the finals of every junior division move to Libbey Park. So it’s common for a 14-year-old to be playing alongside a Pac-10 player who might be a month away from joining the pro tour.

In 1993, Villa Park’s Faye DeVera played her girls’ 14 final next to Stanford’s Alex O’Brien, now one of the world’s top doubles players and a top 35 singles player.

“You can’t explain that experience, really,” DeVera said. “The stands are full. You have ball boys for the first time ever and referees are calling out the scores. It kind of makes you feel like you’re playing a pro tournament.

“I didn’t look at anyone. I was just playing the match. I was so focused. The umpire was saying my name wrong the whole first set, but I didn’t even notice. But you play better in that environment. The crowd helps you concentrate so much better.”

DeVera wound up winning the match and capturing the first major title of her junior career.

“At that time, that was big,” said DeVera, a senior at Villa Park who’s set to play her fifth and last Ojai as a junior player in the girls’ 18 singles division. “I knew that my picture was going to be up on the wall [at Libbey Park] forever. Every year, I’ll go back and look at that picture.”


DeVera also has a videotape of her girls’ 14 final. Occasionally, when she’s looking for inspiration, she’ll pop in the tape, watch herself and listen to her brother Jason’s commentary.

Joseph Gilbert doesn’t have a tape of his first Ojai, but he doesn’t need one. Gilbert was an unseeded freshman from Sunny Hills High who suddenly found himself in the boys’ 16 final against top-seeded Geoff Abrams of Newport Beach, then the nation’s top-ranked 14-year-old.

“I had played my other matches in front of a couple people and then all of sudden there’s hundreds of people watching me,” said Gilbert, now a freshman at Boise State who will play in the independent college division this year. “It’s kind of a shock. Geoff was so big that year. He was twice the size of everybody else. I remember the crowd was for me because I was the underdog. I talked to three or four college coaches last year who still remember that match.”

Gilbert lost in straight sets but he held his own and he came back the next year to claim the boys’ 16 singles title. He will also remind himself to stroll by the wall at the entrance to Libbey Park.

“When I get older, I think it will be really cool to go back and look at the pictures,” he said.

Gilbert said he has always respected the rich tradition and history of the Ojai tournament.


“To have my name on a trophy with so many great players like Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang is a great honor,” Gilbert said.

More than 25 Ojai finalists have gone on to win Wimbledon, including Ashe, Smith, Bill Tilden, Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs, Pancho Gonzalez, Jimmy Connors, Tracy Austin, Billie Jean King and Maureen Connolly. If you were talented and you played high school or college tennis in Southern California, or in the Pac-10, you probably played the Ojai. About the only famous Pac-10 player who didn’t compete at Ojai was John McEnroe. Though he was eligible to play while a freshman at Stanford, McEnroe skipped the Pac-10 championships in favor of a pro tournament.

Apparently, McEnroe didn’t know what he was missing. Those who do know, usually don’t miss the Ojai, no matter what their plans might be.

Laguna Beach tennis Coach John Anawalt said Tom Purcell, the father of one of his doubles players, Andy Purcell, was scheduled to compete in the 50th Newport-to-Ensenada yacht race this weekend but he passed on it so he could watch his son play at Ojai.

“He’s done this boat race for the last 25 years and he’s won it twice,” Anawalt said. “But he said [Ojai] is a memory his son would have for the rest of his life and he wanted to be there to share it with him.”

The memories and good times are not restricted to the players.

“It’s a chance for us to see other coaches in a noncompetitive environment and we can get to know each other,” Anawalt said. “I don’t know of anybody who’s had a bad time in Ojai. You look forward to this for months.”


University Coach Josh Davis took two years off from coaching. He’s not sure what he missed more, coaching or the Ojai tournament.

“I think it’s fabulous,” Davis said. “The younger kids get an opportunity to compete against 17- and 18-year-olds and they get an opportunity to sit at Libbey Park and watch Pac-10 players. It’s really a neat setting. It’s a real reward for them. It’s also a nice time to sit there with your own players and just talk tennis. It’s not something you get to do much during the season.”

The Ojai is held near the end of the boys’ high school tennis season so it often serves as a preview of the Southern Section individual tournament in late May. All high school players are entered through their school and are eligible to be considered for the 64 singles and doubles draws. Sophomores and freshmen who don’t qualify for or don’t choose to play in the interscholastic division may compete in the boys’ 16 or boys’ 14s.

The girls’ season is in the fall so the girls’ 14, 16 and 18 divisions are sanctioned by the Southern California Junior Tennis Assn. Players are invited based on last year’s rankings and this year’s results. Each school is limited to one singles player and one doubles team in the boys’ interscholastic draw and each player and doubles team must be accompanied by their coach.

The Ojai counts toward a junior’s SCTA ranking but doesn’t carry as much weight as the Southern California Sectionals in June.

“The sectionals are more important, but the Ojai is a lot more fun,” said Gilbert, who won the boys’ 18 sectionals last year. “Ojai shows off tennis. Trust me, everybody wants to play in front of those crowds, get their name on the trophy and get their picture on the wall.


“Crowd-wise it’s the best tournament. College coaches are there, the newspapers cover it. It helps you publicity-wise.”

Gilbert said it also helps your ego.

“I remember the first time I drove into Ojai,” he said. “I saw this huge banner that said ‘Welcome players.’ I still remember it was green and white. You knew something big was happening and that you were a part of it. You feel like a little kid going to a playground. You’re eyes open wide.”

DeVera remembers seeing the same banner and how important it made her feel.

“The whole town turns out for the tournament,” she said. “For that weekend, everything revolves around the players. It’s a great experience to play in that environment.”

For some players, the Ojai experience also includes staying on their own for the first time. Players can either stay with their parents at an area hotel or bed and breakfast or can pay $10 and get room and board from Ojai families. Gerry Roe, the event’s publicity director, said many lasting friendships are formed between players and Ojai residents during tournament week.

“We had a boy from San Diego that came up and stayed with us during high school,” she said. “Then when he went on to play at Cal, we had his whole team stay with us. Ojai families have always prided themselves on their hospitality.”

Not only do they give up their homes, they also give up their private tennis courts for a couple days. Woodbridge senior Natalie Exon said the facilities in Ojai don’t compare to most junior tournaments.


“We’re used to playing on run-down courts at a high school or junior high,” Exon said. “At Ojai, we get to play at these nice, private homes. The host has tables set up beside the court with water and snacks. It shows how friendly these people are.”

After players leave the private courts in the gated community of Rancho Matilija, they return to Libbey Park, where they are served complimentary orange juice in the morning and hot tea and cookies in the afternoon. The tea is served from silver urns by some of the more than 600 volunteers that work the Ojai tournament. TENNIS Magazine once referred to the Ojai tournament as a “perfectly preserved period piece.”

Throw some long white pants and a V-neck tennis sweater on some of today’s competitors and the scene around the tea tent at Libbey Park would be a Jane Austen novel in the making.

What do players think of such dated customs?

“That’s the tradition,” DeVera said. “You can’t change that.”

For DeVera, the Ojai tradition will live on for four more years. She is playing her college tennis at Arizona State, which plays in the Pac-10 championships every year.

“When I picked Arizona State, I think subconsciously I was thinking, ‘I’ll still get to play Ojai.’ ”