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Tennis Is Old Hat for Tourney's Manager

April 27, 1989|MIKE HISERMAN | 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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