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The Shangri-La of Tennis : Ojai Event Survives and Thrives After 92 Years of Amateur Play

April 21, 1988|MIKE HISERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Their names won't be found on any marquees. There is a McEnroe, but it's Patrick, not John. There will be no Ivan. No Martina. No Boris. The Ojai tennis tournament doesn't draw top professionals for a very simple reason: There is no prize money.

The big names who have played in the tournament are those from the past. Bill Tilden, Helen Willis, Jack Kramer, Bobby Riggs, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King all have won Ojai titles.

Stan Smith played in the tournament, as did Jimmy Connors--but in college, years before they became the Stan Smith and the Jimmy Connors.

The Ojai tournament's open division--whose champions have won more than two dozen Wimbledon titles--now consists of players with triple-digit rankings. And what is most peculiar about the whole situation is that the people of Ojai, who have nurtured the tournament since 1896, couldn't care less.

Their tournament, which begins today for the 89th time and runs through Sunday, is one of setting and substance, one to be played more for the experience than anything else. The possibility of offering prize money to bolster the field is rarely mentioned. Ojai is steeped in competition, community involvement and tradition.

So, bring on the kids. The freshly scrubbed ones with cheeks as rosy as the flowers that adorn Libbey Park on a spring day. The ones wide-eyed from their first trip away from home for competition. Ojai is theirs for a weekend.

The city of Ojai, population 7,589, is an unusual setting for an amateur tennis tournament. It is located roughly 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, 30 miles southeast of Santa Barbara and 15 miles inland from Ventura. Surrounded by mountains of the Coast Range, it probably couldn't be found by accident. Ojai is so naturally scenic that film-maker Ronald Colman chose it to portray Shangri-La in his 1937 movie "Lost Horizon."

Originally, Ojai was settled by citrus growers and cattle ranchers. Later, in the 1870s, it gained a national reputation for its warm climate, rich agricultural land and mineral baths. Now it is a resort town and the pace is slow except for weekends when visitors to nearby Lake Casitas spill over to the restaurants, shops and arcade downtown.

It would be the perfect spot for a no-bars-closed, weekend-in-Palm Springs spring-break party if it wasn't for one thing: the participants are too darn serious about tennis. And thank goodness for that, because if they weren't, people like Jack Morrison, Caroline Thacher and Fred Lamb would quit and the whole tournament might shrivel up and die.

They are three of the tournament officials who have been working since the day after the end of the 88th Ojai tournament to make the 89th even more of a hit. Their salary comes in the form of seeing it, more often than not, come off without a hitch.

With the exception of a man who is hired to set up and tear down equipment needed for the weekend, no one is paid for their services. In all, more than 500 volunteers--including 200 from The Thacher School, grades nine through 12--will work during the four-day tournament. Their jobs range from washing down the courts and picking up litter to running errands for officials and referees. Others might work in the orange juice or tea stands.

At Wimbledon, they have strawberries and cream. At Ojai, they have orange juice in the morning and tea--which is poured from crafted silver pots into fine china cups--during the afternoon. And, if you're lucky enough to be considered part of the "in" crowd, you may pour instead of serve.

"That's a very important thing for the women," says Morrison, former president of the Ojai Valley Tennis Club, "who pours and who passes."

The pourers are generally the wives of tennis club officers or other dignitaries. The servers are those who are being initiated into the higher echelon of the club's society. Do not, under any circumstances, get the two confused.

"Oh, heavens," says Morrison, cringing at the thought of a mistake. "Don't ever ask them to pour and the next year ask them to pass. That's a no-no."

For decades, many of the same people have worked in the same capacities. "We have a rule," Morrison says. "A person has the same duty until they find their own replacement. It's a tradition."

Ojai is a tournament of tradition. And it begins with the people.

Morrison, 71, is as old as the grandstand at Libbey Park, where the tournament is headquartered. His wife Ruby is the current tennis club president. He has been involved with the tournament for 35 years, starting as part of the security force, then working at the gate, selling advance tickets and coordinating publicity before becoming president in 1968.

"As a kid I used to sneak into the tournament," Morrison says. "I could show you how. We have a fence, but there are lots of places. I see somebody sneaking in very obvious and I say, 'You can find a better way to get in than that. I know. I've done it.' "

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