Al Brey says he has been attending the Ojai Tennis Tournament for years, first as a player in the 1960s and more recently to watch the high-caliber college competition.
Touted as the largest and oldest amateur tennis tourney in the nation, the contest, which runs through Sunday, will draw more than 1,500 players from across the country this year.
"This is the most outrageous thing you'll see in tennis," Brey, a 69-year-old Long Beach resident, said during a tea break Thursday afternoon. "I'd rather be here than the U. S. Open."
Actually, the Ojai is more often compared with Wimbledon thanks to the genteel atmosphere and local traditions surrounding the event, which is in its 93rd year.
The traditions include the cup of tea Brey was drinking: Tea and tennis have been synonymous with the Ojai ever since William Thacher, who helped run the Thacher School, founded the event in 1895. (A few years were missed because of war.)
Thacher, whose fondness for the beverage led him to serve it to all players and spectators, started another tradition carried on by the hordes of volunteers who dedicate themselves each year to the four-day event.
About 600 locals, including a number of students from area schools, will volunteer during the event, tournament spokeswoman Gerry Roe said.
Included will be various court sweepers and scorekeepers, ball boys and cookie servers, and the most coveted job of all--tea pourer.
Many Ojai women have volunteered at the tournament for years, working their way up from cookie server to the table of honor, pouring tea from the large silver teapots that have been donated to the tournament over the years.
Three members of the Woolwine family--mother Jessie Russell, daughter Donna Woolwine and granddaughter Mona Woolwine--have more than 100 years of tea-tent activity behind them.
"Grandma can't even remember when she started," Mona said, adding that it was so long ago that the tea water had to be hauled up on wagons and heated over open fires.
"The tradition of this tournament is what encourages people," said Susanne Wilson, tea tent chairwoman. "My mother ran the tea tent 25 years ago, so you could say I grew up with this tournament."
The Ojai serves as the individual championships for the southern portion of the Pacific 10 Conference, tournament President Dick Archibald said, bringing more than 100 top collegiate players to the area.
"I play every day, but when I see these guys play. . . . They're just so good," Archibald said.
Attendance seemed a bit slow Thursday because most of the matches were among collegiate athletes, but Archibald was excited nonetheless.
"We generally have mostly the players and coaches and family on Thursdays," he said as UCLA's top-ranked player hit a booming serve on Court No. 1.
"But it really picks up over the weekend," Archibald said, adding that there could be 8,000 to 10,000 spectators for Sunday's final round.
Anaheim resident Howard Miller took the day off from work to revisit the Ojai, which he competed in as a junior college player from Cerritos College 10 years ago.
Although he lost a doubles match that day, the memories remained, he said, drinking the ever-present cup of tea.
Miller said he came back to spend a day outdoors watching tennis in the sun. "I still think it was the best tournament I ever played in."
TOURNAMENT COVERAGE: C10