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'The Ojai' has gained a reputation as the birthplace of legends and draws tennis' elite.

PREP EXTRA / A weekly look at the high school sports
scene in the Southland
| THE KIDS' COURT

April 23, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each spring, young tennis players journey to the quiet town of Ojai in the coastal mountains of Ventura County.

They head inland from U.S. 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?' "

But if the Ojai Valley tennis tournament is famous for its rural ambience and tradition, veteran players know it as 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, stars such as Bill Tilden and Helen Wills Moody, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King.

Matches begin today in the 98th tournament, which includes about 1,600 participants in 38 divisions, including boys' California Interscholastic Federation singles and the girls' 18-and-under divisions.

Jose Lieberman of Beverly Hills is the top-seeded player in the boys' CIF singles. Ryan Moore of Anaheim Servite, ranked 19th nationally in the 18-and-under division, is the second-seeded player.

The draw also includes Nicholas Weiss of Calabasas, ranked 11th nationally in the 16-and-under division, and Carl McCafferty of San Gorgonio, ranked 25th nationally in the 16-and-under division.

Bernadette Bayani of Simi Valley is the top-seeded player in the girls' 18-and-under division. Summer Terry of Laguna Beach is seeded second.

For any of them, Ojai could be a steppingstone.

It was for Jack Kramer. He was a wide-eyed junior rubbing shoulders with older players such as Ted Schroeder and Louise Brough when he first visited in 1936. Eventually, all three added 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. This tournament remains essentially a small-town event, drawing 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 and fans got a chance to see the rising stars of the day. Joe Bixler, a tournament official for 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 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 girls' 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 [draw] 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 switched again and the premier matches were played in the college division.

The California schools--USC, UCLA, California and Stanford--had been going 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.

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