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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Birthplace Of Legends

"The Ojai" Has Long Drawn Tennis Elite

April 19, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — Each spring, young tennis players journey to this quiet town in the coastal mountains.

They head inland from Highway 101, following a narrow road, climbing into the countryside of oak and eucalyptus.

"They spend hours in a car and get to the middle of nowhere," said Dick Gould, who made the pilgrimage as a schoolboy in the 1940s. "There are courts in an antiquated park. They ask, 'Where are we?' "

While the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament is famous for its rural ambience and tradition, the players know it as something else--a place where legends are born.

"The Ojai" seems an unlikely spot at first glance. But more than a dozen Wimbledon champions have cut their teeth here, greats such as Bill Tilden and Helen Wills Moody, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King.

Another hallowed alumnus, Jack Kramer, recalls his first visit in 1936. He was a wide-eyed junior rubbing shoulders with older players such as Ted Schroeder and Louise Brough. Eventually, all three would add their names to the list of Wimbledon winners.

"Up until then, coming from San Bernardino, I was used to being around the public parks," Kramer recalled. "Ojai was my first look at a real major tournament."

No one intended for the Ojai to be a big deal. Entering its 98th year, with matches scheduled to begin Thursday, this tournament remains essentially a small-town event that draws few players from outside the state.

It has grown prestigious over time only because Southern California has produced so many great players.

As early as the 1920s, all the best juniors from the region wanted to play Ojai. For many, it was their first trip away from home.

They could be around older, better-known players. Kramer played poker with some of the other kids late into the night. There was an outdoor dance on the town's main drag.

"They would block off the [street], then put up a bandstand and we'd have an orchestra there," said George Toley, former USC tennis coach. "We had a wonderful time."

Many of Ojai's junior champions subsequently won national titles. Gene Mako, Bobby Riggs and Budge Patty did. So did Brough, Ruby Bishop and Nancy Chaffee.

"If 95% of the national champions were from Southern California, that was just a fair year," Toley said. "We used to dominate like crazy."

So Ojai grew prominent by way of location. And fans got a chance to see the rising stars of the day. Joe Bixler, a tournament official for many years, recalls a particular entrant from 1928.

"I think anybody who saw Ellsworth Vines knew damn well he was going to be good," said Bixler, who also served as president of the Southern California Tennis Assn. "You know, Ellie went to USC on a basketball scholarship but he also played this thing called tennis and became a champion. He was terribly impressive."

*

Southern California began to lose its stranglehold on junior tennis around the time of World War II. At Ojai, the spotlight shifted to the men's and women's divisions.

Having won there twice as a junior, Kramer returned to take the men's open in 1942. He recalls playing in front of Shirley Temple.

"She went to a girl's school that sent a team, so she came up with the team and was watching," he said. "In those days, she was the biggest box office of anybody. She was the star of the tournament even though she wasn't playing."

Over the next 30 years, Pancho Gonzalez, Tony Trabert and Ashe won the open at Ojai. Jimmy Connors played in 1970, losing in the final to Jeff Austin.

On the women's side, Billie Jean King beat Rosemary Casals in the 1966 championship.

"Just remarkable," Bixler said. "Like going to Wimbledon."

But as players began turning professional at younger ages, the focus again switched. The tournament's premier matches were subsequently played in the college division.

The California schools--USC, UCLA, Cal and Stanford--had been coming to Ojai for years, looking to get in some tough matches before the NCAA tournament.

"When I was a kid, I used to go up there to watch those college guys duke it out," said Gould, who would one day become coach of the Stanford men's team. "It was always a great event."

In 1954, several coaches successfully petitioned the Pac-10 to have Ojai recognized as the conference singles championship.

"We were all there, anyway," Toley said.

The event subsequently featured the likes of Stan Smith, Roscoe Tanner and Patrick McEnroe.

This year, defending champion Bob Bryan of Stanford returns as the No. 9-ranked college player in the country, just ahead of UCLA's Vince Allegre and Jean-Noel Grinda.

*

There may well be a future great in the field at Ojai this week, but the tournament does not appear to be as star-studded as in decades past. Tennis has become too big, too diluted.

A number of nationally ranked juniors will be on hand, but none as acclaimed as Tracy Austin and Lindsay Davenport were when they played here.

The talented Pac-10 division has no one with quite the reputation of a Smith or a Tanner.

Yet the legends endure. The memories burn strong enough to bring 1,600 players to this out-of-the-way locale.

"People don't realize that when you have an entry of 1,600 players, there are another 5,000 or 10,000 who would love to play if they could get into the draw," Gould said.

So young players will gladly make the drive into the mountains. They will find their way to the courts of old Libbey Park.

The tournament organizers will have erected bulletin boards with photographs of the great players who have come before.

"You go to the park in the morning and see some of those kids all wide-eyed," Bixler said. "You might think they are coming to a world championship."

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