Shooting for the moon, and drinking tea, at The Ojai

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         Linda Pentz

All my tennis friends kept telling me I would love Ojai. “It’s so English!” they would enthuse.

To an expat Brit like me, anything described by Americans as “so English” arouses immediate skepticism. What could be English about an idyllic-sounding Southern California getaway for the well-heeled, some 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles? And why would it try to be English, anyway?

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In fact, when tennis people talk about Ojai, they aren’t talking about the town at all, but about the annual tennis event held there at the Ojai Valley Tennis Club. Tennis people never say “Ojai,” they say “The Ojai.” If you could get yourself to Ojai the place, you played in The Ojai the tennis tournament — in the juniors, Pac-12 (in my day Pac-10) collegiates or the Open. Now there is also a Division III and Independent colleges division and a California community college championships as well.

The 117th edition

Ojai
In 1977, 14-year-old Tracy Austin defeated Maria Fernandez to win the Women’s Open Longtime Ojai Tennis Club board member and Past President Alan Rains presented her with the trophy. A few months later, she reached the US Open quarter-finals.

The Ojai, held over the last full weekend in April, is older than some of the trees that shade Libbey Park where it is played. This will be its 117th year.

And yes it turned out there was tea, served in china cups with saucers. That was the English bit. And probably the least interesting, if welcome, part about it. But I was entranced by The Ojai — and Ojai itself — for a host of other reasons.

Driving up to Ojai from Los Angeles, you are met by horses. And a certain wildness. After the endless, pastel, concrete sprawl of L.A., Ojai really does feel like the countryside, if not another country. When there hasn’t been a drought, it is green. There are pastures and rolling meadows, vineyards and picturesque oldie worldie homes. There are dusty lanes, and cottages with gardens dripping in blooms of every color.

Famous faces, but all are equal

The Ojai does indeed exude a certain quaintness. Much is made of the tea service, but also of the fresh-squeezed orange juice, a distinctly American touch. There is a gentility about it. The whole thing is run by volunteers.

And then there are the players. A quick scroll through the wall of fame reads like a Who’s Who of tennis.

Ojai
From Billie Jean King, to Jimmy Connors, to Tracy Austin, to Pete Sampras, the Ojai’s wall of fame is filled with famous names.

Who didn’t play there? John McEnroe didn’t but Patrick did. Carl Chang won there but not Michael. From May Sutton Bundy and Helen Wills Moody to the Bryan twins and the Jensen brothers, the names reel off like a walk through tennis history.

But it’s not the big names I remember seeing at The Ojai. It wasn’t really like that there. No gawkers came to spot stars. Somehow everyone was equal in the eager eyes of the knowledgeable spectators who flocked there whether it was the ignominious junior dreaming of greatness, or the slightly over-the-hill Open player reliving past glories.

Some fierce California rivalries are rekindled every year at the Ojai, in the collegiate divisions.

The Pac-10 battles were fierce, too. This was not the NCAAs but the teams played like it was. And given the dominance of California schools at nationals, it often felt just as important and intense.

Sometimes there was a bit of curiosity value. I remember watching Kathy May (the mother of current player Taylor Fritz), long retired from the professional game. She had made herself famous by inexplicably dumping her tennis pro husband, the slightly zen and enigmatic Brian Teacher, over the phone in 1980 just before the Australian Open. Teacher very properly handled this by winning the tournament, his only Grand Slam triumph.

Then there was the tragic Stephen Aniston, whom I had interviewed in 1985 for World Tennis in a revelatory piece about his struggles with depression and alcohol and drug addiction while playing at UC Irvine. Tall, strong and charismatic, I was shocked to see Aniston again in 1990 at The Ojai, wraithlike, almost skeletal. I was amazed he could last a match. But he, too, won the tournament. By September he would be dead, murdered by a drifter in what police said was a drug-related incident.

Rocket time in idyllic surroundings

Most of the time, though, The Ojai was all sunshine and sparkle on and off the court. It was a restorative before the descent back into the smog enfolded metropolis.

Ojai
Seen here with a grown-up Austin and Stan Smith, the great Rod Laver will be fêted during the tourney’s 117th edition this year.

This year, Australian great Rod Laver is to be feted as the Ojai Tennis Tournament honoree. The left-hander known as “The Rocket” won 11 singles Grand Slam titles, six Grand Slam doubles titles and three in mixed doubles. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981.

Laver will be welcomed to Ojai, by among others, its droog in chief, the actor Malcolm McDowell, a local resident who also helps fundraise for the tournament. An expat Brit himself, McDowell also was lured to the Ojai Valley less by the afternoon teas than by the glorious sunsets and a regal oak grove he discovered and where he built his home.

Apparently Ojai means “moon” in the Native Chumash language. There will be quite a few people shooting for it when The Ojai settles into its 117th edition.

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