The ‘Jai Life
When 78-year-old Ted Schroeder returns to Libbey Park’s tranquil grounds Saturday morning, a flood of memories of playing in the Ojai Valley tennis tournament will wash over him. He hasn’t been back since 1952, but standing in the shade of the same eucalyptus trees and sycamores that have been there since the event began in 1896, he’ll realize not much has changed.
He’ll sit in the newly painted Fenway-green bleachers and spin tales of playing tennis with other international greats during the so-called Golden Age of the sport--the mid-1920s until the early 1940s. That’s when such players as Bill Tilden, Helen Wills Moody, Ellsworth Vines, Bobby Riggs and Gene Mako ruled not only Southern California tennis, but the world.
“I remember playing my first tournament there 67 years ago in 1933,” said Schroeder, a La Jolla resident who went on to play at USC and was the No. 1 player in the country in 1942. “Ojai was the biggest thing in our lives. It is the most delightful tournament there ever was. No state or section in the country has anything that remotely compares to Ojai.”
Sometime during play, which starts today at the tournament simply referred to as the Ojai, a cell phone might ring and players and fans will be able to log onto the tournament’s Web site (www.ojaitourney.org), but the beauty of the oldest tennis tournament held at one location in the United States is that the traditions remain. Freshly squeezed orange juice will be served, and the tea tent will be staffed by some of the 600 volunteers.
Schroeder, winner of the U.S. Championships in 1942 and Wimbledon in ’49, is returning this weekend to celebrate 100 years of tournaments (there have been five years when the tournament was not held). He will be recognized along with 79 other former Ojai players who went on to win a Grand Slam tournament.
For all who know of the event’s history and tradition, the tournament remains a casually local affair, isolated and tucked away just as Ojai is, 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. While other tournaments have either died off or grown into professional events with sponsors’ names in the title, the Ojai has said no to commercialism. It has grown to more than 1,600 players in 37 divisions, including the Pacific 10 championships, but has retained its traditions and quaintness.
Ojai and tennis have become inextricably linked, like Indianapolis and auto racing, Kentucky and horse racing, and Augusta, Ga., and golf, but on a more intimate scale.
“I’ve played in all the tournaments, including Wimbledon, and this is by far my favorite because it is so special,” said former UCLA men’s tennis coach Glenn Bassett, who coached players such as Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors at Ojai. “Just the atmosphere of the park. Everything is just tennis. It is the best tournament in the world.”
Here’s a look at some of the events in the last 105 years that have helped define the tournament:
1895-1910: Humble Beginnings
The tournament’s founder, William Thacher, was a national intercollegiate doubles champion at Yale. He joined his brothers--Edward, a citrus grower, and Sherman, founder of Thacher School, in Ojai in 1890.
Upon his arrival, Sherman told William: “If you have brought white tennis trousers, tennis shoes, and a racket and white hat in your trunk, please, please keep them there. We, here, do not play tennis at all. We work and play with horses.”
The first all-comers tournament was held at Thacher School in early 1893, according to Tony Thacher, Sherman Thacher’s grandson, who recently published a book commemorating the 100th tournament.
Many consider that the first year of the Ojai event, although Tony acknowledges that it depends on whom you ask.
The 1893 winners, from a field of six students and two teachers, were Rex W. Sherer and Charles C. Perkins. William Thacher wrote some 45 years later that these two students should rightfully be credited as the first two Ojai Valley all-comers champions.
In 1895, William founded the Ojai Valley Tennis Club. Eager to find more competition, the club challenged champions from Ventura to a match in 1896, marking the first official year of the tournament. Players from Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Pasadena competed in 1897, and in 1898 a group from Southern California took on winners from Northern California.
The locals were beaten, 16-4, but according to newspaper accounts, the event had a carnival-like feel. Newspapers from San Diego to San Francisco covered the tournament. More than 30 photographers were there, and 400 spectators attended, nearly doubling the population of the town. Ruby Garland of Ojai won the first women’s open singles title in 1900, despite “shocked refusal” from some who thought women should not be allowed to compete.
In 1904, William Thacher’s favorite drink, tea, was served for the first time and started one of many traditions that continue today. Harry Maiden, a longtime Ojai and Wimbledon umpire, once said, “There are only two civilized tournaments in the world, the Ojai and Wimbledon, because they both serve tea.”
Orange juice became another Ojai staple during the Depression--when citrus prices plummeted so drastically that local packing houses donated oranges by the crate--and is served from early in the morning until 1 p.m.
1910-1920: Building a Name
By 1912, the tournament had grown to 272 players in 12 events. At the time, it was the largest tournament in the United States and possibly the world. The court surface was hard-rolled dirt (asphalt wasn’t used until 1925), and chicken-wire fences were constructed to keep the balls on the court. A couple of barrels and planks were laid out to serve as the tournament desk.
It wasn’t until 1917 that the site of the tournament shifted from Thacher School to a park in the center of town donated by Edward Drummond Libbey. Today, the tournament headquarters remains at the original four courts on the northern side of the park.
Neither World War I nor two big fires in 1917 could keep the tournament from continuing in 1918. The site simply changed to YMCA courts in Los Angeles, then to Santa Barbara in 1919.
1920-1930: A Player’s Tournament
May Sutton Bundy probably brought the most fame to the Ojai tournament during the early years. She was the first woman from the United States to win at Wimbledon (1905 and 1907) and so all eyes were on her when she played Ojai each year.
“May Bundy thought she owned the world,” said Patricia Henry Yeomans, a tennis historian who wrote “The 100 Years of Southern California Tennis Champions” in 1987. “She didn’t hardly lose a match from 1900 to 1928 and she had four children during that time.”
Yeomans--a former Ojai winner herself--remembers watching her mother, Mrs. William Henry, play doubles with Bundy in Ojai in 1928.
“She had a great forehand--just a hard hitter,” she said of Sutton Bundy. “When she played, she just acted like no one else was there.” Sutton Bundy never lost a Pacific Southwest California Championship played at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, winning her first title at age 12 and her last at age 41.
Sutton Bundy’s daughter, DoDo Bundy Cheney, remembers her mother dominating her three sisters--Ethel, Florence and Violet. “None of her sisters could beat her,” said DoDo, now 83. “She was incredible. She was a fighter who hated to lose.”
DoDo, now living in La Jolla, won the Ojai younger girls title in 1930 and will return to Ojai this weekend to be honored.
May Sutton Bundy was the first Ojai champion to make her mark on the women’s world scene, and Bill Tilden did the same on the men’s side. Tilden, considered one of the game’s greatest players with a .936 winning percentage (907-62 record during his amateur years of 1912-1930), brought his cannonball serve to Ojai in 1928, winning the men’s open event the same year he was captain and star for the U.S. Davis Cup team, which finished second to France.
1930-1940: Two of a Kind
In 1934, Gene Mako and Jack Tidball faced each other at Ojai in the final of the intercollegiate division. Mako was starring for USC. Tidball was the reigning Ojai and NCAA champion from UCLA.
Mako beat Tidball in singles, and Tidball and his partner beat Mako and his partner in doubles. Both say they remember little about their Ojai singles match, especially Tidball, 88. “I don’t like to remember much about it, because I lost,” he said. “It was fairly close.”
“Yeah, it was a good match,” said Mako, 84.
Tidball, the only player to win four consecutive Ojai open singles titles (1936-39), remembers watching Tilden play in 1928. Tidball had first come to Ojai the previous year, winning the interscholastic doubles playing for Hollywood High.
Mako recalls playing national junior champion Jake Cohn at age 13 in his first Ojai. He also played Ellsworth Vines at 17.
Now, Mako and Tidball’s favorite game is bridge at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Neither has played tennis in years, but both will be in Ojai this weekend.
“We had to quit playing tennis,” Tidball said. “It’s not that we wanted to.”
1940-1950: War Halts Ojai
Louise Brough Clapp was the women’s open singles runner-up in 1941 and 1942. World War II forced cancellation of the tournament from 1943 to ’46, then Brough Clapp came back to win Ojai titles in 1947-49 and 1957.
“I traveled around playing tennis from 1942 to 1946, but it wasn’t as luxurious as it had been,” said Brough Clapp, 77, who now lives in Vista. “I played on the USO circuit in ’45 and ’46, playing exhibitions for the soldiers. We also played in tournaments, but there was no audience and we were given certificates instead of trophies. It was very interesting playing at that time. I don’t think a word can come to me to describe exactly what it was like.”
Brough Clapp went on to win 13 Wimbledon titles, including five in singles. “I remember going back to England in 1948 and having to play on different courts because of all the war damage,” she said. “Center court couldn’t be used because it was bombed out.”
The Ojai returned in full force in 1947 and has been held on the last full weekend in April since. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1949 with returning players such as Brough Clapp, Pancho Gonzalez, Schroeder and Bob Falkenburg. An old-timers event was held with three of the Sutton sisters--May, Florence and Ethel--on hand.
The crowds were also back. “We’ll need a shoehorn to get any more spectators in here,” said then-tournament president, Charles G. Raymond.
1950-1960: Betting on Amateurism
Part of the allure of the tournament is that it has never fallen prey to the world of professional tennis. No winner of Ojai has been handed a check after coming off the Libbey Park courts. Said tournament president Sidney W. Treat in the 1930s: “Expenses must be met but a ‘Big Show’ atmosphere must be absolutely avoided.”
Jack Kramer, who first played at the Ojai as a 15-year-old in 1936, visited Ojai often after his playing days ended in 1953. A tireless promoter of the sport who helped usher in the open era in 1968, Kramer always has a story to tell about the Ojai. It could be about the time in 1942 when Shirley Temple “created pandemonium” at the street dance. Or about losing money in all-night poker games.
Kramer, 78, said one of his most bitter defeats came at Ojai during his junior season at Montebello High in 1938. “You could play poker in Ojai back then, and I was one of the leading poker players,” he said. “The guys sort of challenged me to sit in on a game and we happened to be playing with a couple of old hard boot-type guys wearing cowboy hats.”
Kramer ended up playing until 3 a.m. and lost all his money. “I thought, ‘God, I have to play in the semifinals tomorrow against Arthur Marx,’ who was Groucho Marx’s son. He ended up beating me in three sets. That was one of the tougher defeats I ever had.”
With no money, Kramer snacked on cookies and orange juice. "[Tournament director] Perry Jones didn’t want to help me out because he wanted to teach me a lesson. He was a straight and narrow guy and he was so helpful to me, but he couldn’t break my habit of wanting to play cards.”
Kramer, who won the U.S. Open in 1946 and 1947 and Wimbledon in 1947, last visited Ojai in 1993 to honor Arthur Ashe. He said the trip “rekindled an enthusiasm in the game I had as a kid.” He will return this weekend.
1960-1970: Ashe and Other Greats
The pre-open era brought many of the nation’s top players to USC and UCLA, and that meant they would play Ojai’s intercollegiate division, which was becoming stronger than the open division. The two schools dominated the college tennis scene, with one or the other winning 12 consecutive NCAA singles titles and all 10 doubles finals in the 1960s.
Players such as Stan Smith, Bob Lutz, Charlie Pasarell, Dennis Ralston and Rafael Osuna won Ojai titles as well as NCAA championships. And so did Arthur Ashe, who won the Ojai open division title in 1962, his first appearance. He won intercollegiate titles in 1964 and ’65. Dennis Jenks, whose grandmother, Ruby Garland, was the first Ojai women’s winner, remembers Ashe staying at his parents’ Ojai home during those early years.
“It was the same house on Gridley road that Bill Tilden and his teammates used to stay at,” said Jenks. “I remember my mother telling me stories of Tilden sleeping under the oak trees.”
Jenks recalls one year, Ashe had made the finals and was warming up against the Jenks’ garage wall. Ashe had forgotten to set his clock the night before because of daylight savings time and was an hour late for the final. “My mom came running out and said, ‘Arthur, you’re late for your match,’ ” Jenks said. “Arthur still thought he had an hour left. We raced him over to the courts and he was a little late, but of course, they would never default Arthur Ashe.”
1970-1980: Training Ground
Things didn’t change much at the beginning of the 1970s as a young left-hander from Illinois, Jim Connors, made a splashy debut at the Ojai. Connors had moved to Beverly Hills to train with coach Pancho Segura when he was 16. He reached the finals of the Ojai open division as a 17-year-old senior in 1970, losing to UCLA’s Jeff Austin the same year UCLA’s Haroon Rahim beat Stanford’s Roscoe Tanner for the Pac-8 title.
Austin, now a sports agent, made a claim for his 1971 UCLA team as the best ever. “We just had a ton of depth,” Austin said in 1996. “We had Connors playing No. 3. We knew he’d be a future champion, but nobody expected him to be the best ever. We were so deep it was ridiculous. I think ours clearly was the best team ever. You can’t get that kind of depth in college tennis anymore.”
In the 1971 Pac-8 semifinals, Connors beat Tanner and then fell to defending NCAA champion Jeff Borowiak in the final, 6-1, 7-5.
The April 23, 1971, edition of the Ventura Star-Free Press recounted it this way: “Despite the lopsided loss, Connors kept the crowd entertained with a running commentary on his play, which ranged from profanity to Oh, Jeffie!” when Borowiak beat him with a good shot.
Connors beat Tanner for the NCAA title that year in his last collegiate match.
Stanford Coach Dick Gould would have loved to have matched his 1978, 24-0, Cardinal team against the Bruins. That team was led by freshman NCAA champion John McEnroe, who the summer before had become the youngest semifinalist in Wimbledon history, before succumbing to Connors in four sets.
But McEnroe, who played only one year at Stanford, never played at Ojai, skipping the tournament after receiving a wild-card entry into Alan King’s Las Vegas professional event.
On April 25, 1977, one match was given four lines in the Los Angeles Times sports section: “Tracy Austin, 14, of Rolling Hills, defeated Maria Fernandez or Torrance, 6-4, 7-5, to win the open women’s singles division at the Ojai invitational tennis tournament at Libbey Park.”
Three months later, Austin became one of the youngest players to compete at Wimbledon, losing to defending champion Chris Evert. Two months later, the 5-foot, 90-pounder reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open and made it as far as No. 12 in the world before the end of the year.
1980-1990: Sampras Remembered
It wasn’t until early last year when tournament organizers were looking for past Ojai players who later won Grand Slam tournaments that a familiar name was uncovered. It had only been 15 years, but nobody could recall Pete Sampras playing in Ojai’s junior divisions.
Sampras, of Rancho Palos Verdes, had in fact played twice at Ojai, though he never won.
In 1984, he lost in the third round of the boys’ 16s to Greg Faille, who then lost to Jeff Tarango in the semifinals. In 1985, Sampras again was beaten in the third round, by Carl Chang, who beat Tarango in the final.
The player tied for the most Grand Slam titles in the history of the game never played at Libbey Park because all the junior events until the finals are held on private Ojai courts.
Ojai residents Hal and Binney Moss recall one year when Michael Chang played in their backyard. Chang lost to brother Carl in 1983 and in 1984 fell to Giora Peyes in the boys’ 14s final. In 1989, at 17, Chang won the French Open.
1990-2000: The Name Game
Like Billie Jean Moffitt King and Austin before her, Lindsay Davenport made an early impression at the Ojai.
In 1990, Davenport won the girls’ 16s and in 1991 she lost in the final of the girls’ 18s to Nicole London.
Davenport’s coach, Robert Van’t Hof, won Ojai in 1978 and 1980 while at USC.
“I’ve always loved the tournament,” Davenport said. “I remember being 13 or 14 and watching all the women play at the Ojai Valley Inn. My coach won it a couple of years so there are times we do reminisce about Ojai.”
Ojai welcomes back its own. Twenty-two years removed from his collegiate days at Stanford, 42-year-old Roscoe Tanner returned to Ojai in 1994. Urged by Dennis Ralston, Tanner--at the time a Westlake Village resident--decided to enter the men’s open division at the Ojai as a tuneup for a Jimmy Connors-led Champions Tour circuit, which would debut later that summer. The former Australian Open champion lost in the semifinals, but talked all weekend about his experiences there as a young player.
What of the future? “Are you against apple pie?” tournament President Alan Rains said. “I don’t see there’s any reason to end it. I think there’s another 100 years ahead.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* WHAT: Thirty-seven divisions and more than 1,600 players competing. Events include the Pacific 10 Conference individual singles and doubles championships, Big West men’s and women’s team championships, boys’ CIF singles and doubles, men’s and women’s open divisions and junior events.
* WHEN: Today through Sunday. The Pac-10 will play two rounds of singles (32-player draw) and doubles (16-player draw) starting today at
* WHERE: All finals will be played at Libbey Park in downtown Ojai. Other courts will be used in Ojai, Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo.
* PAC-10: UCLA (21-3), ranked second in the nation, defeated previously unbeaten Stanford (22-1) last Saturday, 5-2. Top players competing include Stanford’s K.J. Hippensteel, UCLA’s Jean-Noel Grinda and Jong-Min Lee and USC’s Andrew Park.
* THACHER CUP: Stanford has won nine of the last 10 cups, the unofficial team title.
* ON THE INTERNET: www.ojaitourney.org.
* TICKETS: May be purchased at Libbey Park, Ojai Athletic Club or the Ojai Valley Inn Tennis Center.
* TV: Pac-10 final, May 5, 10 a.m., Fox Sports Net.
* PREP EXTRA: Rylan Rizza leads talented Palos Verdes Peninsula team into interscholastic competition at 100th Ojai. D9
A look at former Ojai players who won singles titles at Wimbledon:
Bill Tilden (1920, ’21)
Ellsworth Vines (1932)
Bobby Riggs (1939)
Jack Kramer (1947)
Bob Falkenburg (1948)
Ted Schroeder (1949)
Tony Trabert (1955)
Alex Olmedo (1959)
Stan Smith (1972)
Jimmy Connors (1974, ’82)
Arthur Ashe (1975)
Pete Sampras (1993, ’94, ’95, ’97, ’98, ’99)
May Sutton (1905, 1907)
Helen Wills Moody (1927, ’28, ’29, ’30, ’32, ’33, ’35, ’38)
Alice Marble (1939)
Pauline Betz (1946)
Louise Brough Clapp (1946, ’48, ’49, ’50, ’55)
Maureen Connolly (1952, ’53, ’54)
Billie Jean Moffitt King (1966, ’67, ’68, ’72, ’73, ’74)