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The 'Jai Life

Tennis and Tea: For the 100th Time, That Translates to Spring in Ojai

April 27, 2000|STEVE PRATT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When 78-year-old Ted Schroeder returns to Libbey Park's tranquil grounds Saturday morning, a flood of memories of playing in the Ojai Valley tennis tournament will wash over him. He hasn't been back since 1952, but standing in the shade of the same eucalyptus trees and sycamores that have been there since the event began in 1896, he'll realize not much has changed.

He'll sit in the newly painted Fenway-green bleachers and spin tales of playing tennis with other international greats during the so-called Golden Age of the sport--the mid-1920s until the early 1940s. That's when such players as Bill Tilden, Helen Wills Moody, Ellsworth Vines, Bobby Riggs and Gene Mako ruled not only Southern California tennis, but the world.

"I remember playing my first tournament there 67 years ago in 1933," said Schroeder, a La Jolla resident who went on to play at USC and was the No. 1 player in the country in 1942. "Ojai was the biggest thing in our lives. It is the most delightful tournament there ever was. No state or section in the country has anything that remotely compares to Ojai."

Sometime during play, which starts today at the tournament simply referred to as the Ojai, a cell phone might ring and players and fans will be able to log onto the tournament's Web site (www.ojaitourney.org), but the beauty of the oldest tennis tournament held at one location in the United States is that the traditions remain. Freshly squeezed orange juice will be served, and the tea tent will be staffed by some of the 600 volunteers.

Schroeder, winner of the U.S. Championships in 1942 and Wimbledon in '49, is returning this weekend to celebrate 100 years of tournaments (there have been five years when the tournament was not held). He will be recognized along with 79 other former Ojai players who went on to win a Grand Slam tournament.

For all who know of the event's history and tradition, the tournament remains a casually local affair, isolated and tucked away just as Ojai is, 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. While other tournaments have either died off or grown into professional events with sponsors' names in the title, the Ojai has said no to commercialism. It has grown to more than 1,600 players in 37 divisions, including the Pacific 10 championships, but has retained its traditions and quaintness.

Ojai and tennis have become inextricably linked, like Indianapolis and auto racing, Kentucky and horse racing, and Augusta, Ga., and golf, but on a more intimate scale.

"I've played in all the tournaments, including Wimbledon, and this is by far my favorite because it is so special," said former UCLA men's tennis coach Glenn Bassett, who coached players such as Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors at Ojai. "Just the atmosphere of the park. Everything is just tennis. It is the best tournament in the world."

Here's a look at some of the events in the last 105 years that have helped define the tournament:

1895-1910: Humble Beginnings

The tournament's founder, William Thacher, was a national intercollegiate doubles champion at Yale. He joined his brothers--Edward, a citrus grower, and Sherman, founder of Thacher School, in Ojai in 1890.

Upon his arrival, Sherman told William: "If you have brought white tennis trousers, tennis shoes, and a racket and white hat in your trunk, please, please keep them there. We, here, do not play tennis at all. We work and play with horses."

The first all-comers tournament was held at Thacher School in early 1893, according to Tony Thacher, Sherman Thacher's grandson, who recently published a book commemorating the 100th tournament.

Many consider that the first year of the Ojai event, although Tony acknowledges that it depends on whom you ask.

The 1893 winners, from a field of six students and two teachers, were Rex W. Sherer and Charles C. Perkins. William Thacher wrote some 45 years later that these two students should rightfully be credited as the first two Ojai Valley all-comers champions.

In 1895, William founded the Ojai Valley Tennis Club. Eager to find more competition, the club challenged champions from Ventura to a match in 1896, marking the first official year of the tournament. Players from Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Pasadena competed in 1897, and in 1898 a group from Southern California took on winners from Northern California.

The locals were beaten, 16-4, but according to newspaper accounts, the event had a carnival-like feel. Newspapers from San Diego to San Francisco covered the tournament. More than 30 photographers were there, and 400 spectators attended, nearly doubling the population of the town. Ruby Garland of Ojai won the first women's open singles title in 1900, despite "shocked refusal" from some who thought women should not be allowed to compete.

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