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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | OJAI TENNIS TOURNAMENT

Volunteer Army Prepares to Serve Tradition Again

April 25, 2001|LAUREN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OJAI — Banners and signs trumpeting the return of the largest annual event in Ojai have been hung at the entrance to Libbey Park and in the archways and on utility posts of the arcade across the street.

Hospitality tents dot the park's landscape. Tarps to be used as sunscreens have been raised, and the umpires' chairs, scorecards and towels have been taken out of storage and delivered to their destinations.

Decisions have been made regarding what events will be scheduled. The draws are set.

"At the moment, everything seems like it's in place," said Bob Jarboe, president of the Ojai Valley Tennis Club, a loosely organized group of volunteers that has planned and will stage the 101st edition of the Ojai Valley tennis tournament Thursday through Sunday.

"We're about ready for it," Jarboe said. "But right now, it's very eerily dead."

Call it the calm before the norm, because the oldest and largest amateur tournament in the nation will go on, just as it has 100 times before, thanks to people like Jarboe and his home-spun, home-based army of nearly 700 volunteers.

This nonprofit group--a collection of Ojai residents and out-of-town tennis enthusiasts--annually raises the level of community spirit in Ojai to that of the pride that players feel upon winning division titles.

"It's something you share. That's just the way it's always been," said Ruby Morrison, who has worked in a variety of capacities at the tournament for 35 years and has been a member of the Ojai Valley Tennis Club board of directors for 25 years.

"There are just so many wonderful people involved that you feel left out if you're not."

There is plenty of work to go around for anyone who wants to pitch in.

Beyond the setting up of tables, chairs, concession and souvenir stands, there is the installation of additional toilets and temporary plumbing for a makeshift kitchenette used in the traditional service of orange juice, tea and cookies to players, and the cleanup of china teacups and saucers.

"It's all just so civilized," said Louanne Fay, a tea tent supervisor. "People don't expect to come to a sports event and find china and linen."

Actually, at Ojai, they do.

Approximately 1,500 cups of tea and 10,000 cookies are served annually over the course of the four-day event.

The tradition continues from 2:30-5 p.m. the first three days of the tournament and from 1-4 p.m. Sunday.

Ojai Valley Tennis Club members have been carrying on the tradition since the tournament began in 1896. The group was started by William L. Thacher in 1895 to prepare for the inaugural event.

The lion's share of the organizational work is done by a core group of about 30 who serve on the club's board of directors. Others begin working on the tournament in earnest every January.

"We set up a miniature city, really," said Ron Saltis, venue layout coordinator for the last 10 years and a tournament official for 25. He has spent the last week setting up shop in Libbey Park and preparing other event sites throughout Ventura County.

"I find it amazing that it goes off so well," Saltis said. "We have supplies that'll show up, and there are things that happen that I should know how they happen, but I don't. Nobody knows. It just happens."

The smooth operation is the result of monthly meetings of the Ojai Valley Tennis Club, and a testament to the dedication, commitment and experience of the volunteers, who span three generations in some families.

"We have sort of an unwritten rule that you can't leave until you find somebody to replace you," Morrison said.

About 200 volunteers are culled from the Thacher School, a private boarding facility for ninth- through 12th-graders in Ojai. But most are middle-aged working residents or retirees.

What they bring to fruition each year is a prestigious event that has been written up for its longevity, genteel traditions and ambience in a variety of newspapers and periodicals, including the April 21, 1958 edition of Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, and Business Weekly and Tennis magazines.

The event includes 1,600 players, 110 tennis courts--about a third of which are private ones in Ojai residents' backyards--and 34 divisions of competition. Perpetual trophies include the Farnam Cup for the winner of the boys' high school division, the Huffman Cup for the Pacific 10 Conference men's singles champion, the Nordhoff Challenge Cup for the girls' 18-and-under winner and the Griggs Cup for the high school team competition.

"I think more than anything, people like that it's an amateur tournament," Jarboe said. "But it's pretty prestigious, and I think players strive to have their name on those trophies that have been around for so long."

Last year, during celebration of the tournament's centennial, a stone-and-brass "Wall of Fame" shrine to past Ojai players who have won Grand Slam events was unveiled.

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