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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Hometown Heroes

Resident Players Capture the Heart of This Small Town at Ojai Tournament

April 24, 1998|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — Their names are bandied about in coffee shops and at local country clubs.

In a community that goes tennis mad this time each year, they are the hometown players who have a chance to win a championship at the Ojai Valley tennis tournament.

The list of local winners is all too short for an event that began its 98th year of play Thursday.

"We wish there could be more," said John Morrison, a former tournament president. "Among tennis people, we certainly talk about the kids who have a chance."

Ryan Redondo probably represents the biggest and brightest hope, and he played up to expectations in the first round.

Built strong and stern-looking, Redondo hit the requisite number of baseline winners, threw in a few sharp volleys, and walked away with a 6-0, 6-0 victory over Chris Shepherd in the boys' 16-and-under singles.

The match, played in morning's chill, was attended by a clutch of family, friends and interested onlookers. As Joe DeVito, the town's mayor, says: "People here support the locals."

Maybe that explains why Lori Stern, another hopeful, was something of a celebrity at her junior high school this week.

"My teachers were all going to come to see me play but they had to teach classes," Stern said.

At a tennis club up the road, Julie Johnson knows what it feels like to be the object of such affections. During the 1980s, as Julie Tullberg, she won three junior titles.

A decade later, those victories remain a cherished memory.

"Who wouldn't love it?" asked Johnson, now a tennis teacher. "It's your hometown and you're a favorite, having people come out and watch. It was awesome."

No one seems to know exactly how many resident champions there have been, but it hasn't been near enough to satisfy the populace.

One of the local prep schools has a standing rule: if a student wins, classes are canceled the following Monday. That hasn't happened in a long while.

As in decades.

But the hullabaloo that would greet the next local hero is somewhat lost on Redondo, a world-class player who, truth be told, moved to Ojai just last year.

Having recently returned from junior tournaments in Brazil and Paraguay, he says only that he knows this storied but decidedly small-town event is "a pretty big deal."

His sister, Summer, represents another possible title. She and Nathalie Herreman, a former top professional from France, are the No. 1-seeded team in women's open doubles.

Perhaps the only Redondo who fully appreciates the magnitude of the opportunity is their father, Skip, who moved his family from San Diego when he became coach at the new Weil Academy in Ojai.

"This," he said, "is a tennis town."

And if the locals are to have another champion in their midst, his children are the ones who will likely have to come through.

Stern, who has done well in 14-and-under tournaments around Southern California, chose not to play in that division at Ojai.

It was decided that she should seek tougher competition by playing older kids in the 16-and-under division.

Stern got what she was looking for, losing her first-round match, 6-3, 6-2, to Kim-Anh Nguyen of Santa Ana.

A couple of townsfolk, watching the match, could only shake their heads.

"She's from Ojai," one of them said. "What a shame."

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