The Ojai: Tradition and progress collide

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     Barry Buss

OJAI, California – The Ojai has just wrapped up its 117th edition.

As someone who’s been coming here for nearly 40 years in a variety of capacities, I have some thoughts on the challenges the tournament faces moving forward.

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The tournament is deeply steeped in tradition, while trying to stay relevant in our fast-changing times.

And that is the dilemma it faces. 

The rate of change in modern society is dizzying – regardless of the endeavor. If you’re not growing, you’re falling behind.

Sitting in the packed Libbey Park stands on a picture-perfect Southern California Friday afternoon, watching the Pac-12 conference semi-finals between USC and Cal-Berkeley, a coaching friend sat down beside me.

As we talked about The Ojai and what a special place it was, I recalled how it used to be back in the 70s and 80s during America’s tennis boom. He then asked how much the event had changed since then. Beyond a television tower and a plethora of banner ads gracing the center courts, my honest answer was, “not much.”

Standing still, falling behind

That doesn’t mean The Ojai has not undergone significant changes, particularly in recent years. The Pac-12 individual championships, won by everyone from Arthur Ashe to Steve Johnson to Nicole Gibbs, used to be The Ojai’s marquee event. No longer. It now is a team competition. The men began in 2012; the women joined them this year. 

The change was not a matter of choice but of necessity, the need to keep pace with the evolution of college tennis. The Pac-12 basked in its lore and tradition at The Ojai. But it was the only remaining major conference in the country without a conference team championship, and that put it at a competitive disadvantage. An end-of-season conference tourney provides teams with a final chance to improve their rankings for the NCAA championships. It also bolsters strength of schedule; these are important factors when determining seeding.

The Pac-12 used to be the dominant conference in all of college tennis. But with the balance of power shifting to conferences like the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC, to fail to grow with the times was to fall behind.

College tennis matches takes place in two segments. The first consists of three doubles sets played simultaneously. That’s followed by six singles matches, also played simultaneously. Historic, classic, traditional Libbey Park, The Ojai’s main facility, is ill-equipped to handle the format.

It takes more than just enough courts. The host facility’s courts must be aligned in such a way that players, coaches and fans have clear views and easy access. You never know which match will be the last to finish, the ultimate decider.

The Ojai’s challenge: logistics

As currently configured, Libbey Park is not user-friendly enough. The upper area is a giant square of four courts: two in the front, two in the back. Even the best seat in the house can only watch two courts at once. With three doubles matches played simultaneously, the setup is challenging for fans trying to keep up with the scores. The players are in the dark about how the other matches are progressing. The coaches must make early decisions about where they need to be coaching. Those I spoke to this week were unanimous about the less than optimal layout.

It’s a long trek from upper Libbey to the lower courts, making the logistics of college dual matches unworkable. (Barry Buss/Tennis.Life)

For singles, the configuration is even worse.  With only four courts at upper Libbey, two of the six concurrent singles matches must be played at lower Libbey. You have to go down a path, over a street and down a deep ravine that eventually opens up into a flat canyon, where the picturesque lower courts of Libbey lie.

With no electronic scoreboard in clear view at either the upper or the lower courts, those in one area have no idea what’s taking place at the other until someone tells them. Your team could have won, or lost, or the whole match could come down to your court.  It’s confusing for players and coaches, never mind the paying fans.

A past complaint about college tennis dual matches was their unruly length. Here, the complaint is that you don’t know what’s going on. There needs to be a plan to explain the format to the uninitiated either by placing flyers around the facility explaining the rules, or having a broadcaster on a microphone explaining the action as it takes place.

Expansion challenging

Could Libbey Park expand? Adding courts to the existing setup is nearly impossible geologically; gullies and ravines surround the facility on three of its four sides. The only space for expansion would be the front of the park. But that would dramatically alter the feel of the grounds; no doubt the traditionalists at The Ojai would steadfastly oppose it.

Meanwhile, the product on the court was wonderful; the full stands every day were a testament to that.

Ojai
A tournament venue can be historic and traditional – and progressive at the same time. On a smaller scale, The Ojai could look at Wimbledon, the gold standard in seamlessly melding the two. (Barry Buss/Tennis.Life)

The Pac-12 conference team championships wrapped up the event on a high note as USC defeated UCLA in a 4-3 thriller under the lights. Former The Ojai winner Tracy Austin’s son, Brandon Holt, clutched out a tight three-setter at No. 1 singles to close out the tie.

It was a perfect ending for the teams, the fans, and the Pac-12 Network television coverage. And yet, I leave this year’s Ojai with this thought.

What if the deciding match happened to be at No. 6 singles – down the path, across the street, through the deep ravine, and down at the lower Libbey courts? And that the trek had to be made in near-darkness?

How many who came to watch that evening would have missed the ending to one of the most exciting college tennis matches I’ve ever witnessed?

In my opinion, that’s just no way to end an important sporting event. It’s just one of the many challenges The Ojai faces going forward as it tries to reconcile tradition with progress.

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