OJAI , California – In American tennis, going from the juniors straight into the professional ranks is a leap only a rare handful of talents can manage.
A more sensible development route for an aspiring youngster is to transition to college tennis first to see if their game develops, while getting an education in case it doesn’t.
The junior and college tennis worlds rarely interact. They take place in entirely different spaces. But there is one event that is an exception to this: The Ojai.
The Ojai is one of the only tournaments in the United States that hosts junior and collegiate levels at the same time and place. For generations of aspiring players throughout California, the dream to play college tennis is born there.
Many years ago, my own dream was born there. As a high-school junior, I was awed by the colorful spectacle that was college tennis at Ojai’s Libbey Park. I knew little of the players, the coaches or the teams. But they appeared so well put together – mini-mes of my favorite professionals. As fate would have it, the players from UCLA were the ones who stood out from all the rest that day. From then on, I dreamed of someday playing for the Bruins.
It was now, or never
Several years later when I was being recruited, the same college coaches I’d watched at The Ojai all these years were knocking on my door. The dream was actually going to come true.
It quickly became a nightmare.
Six months of poor play and even worse behavior had moved me from the top of every coach’s recruiting list to the bottom. I needed to get my act together and quickly. The Ojai was my last chance.
I vowed to clean up my act – on and off the court – for The Ojai to at least give myself one last shot.
With my new attitude, I was playing well. How long would it last? That was always the question. After a couple of rounds I came up against the late Stephen Aniston, a supremely talented junior. He also was a local hero; the Ojai crowd was vociferous and partisan in support of him.
I tried valiantly to not let the crowd distract me. Just before match time, I looked up to see none other than UCLA coach Glenn Bassett among a throng of other college coaches up against the fence, preparing to watch our match.
This was my chance, and I knew it.
The match was rough. The crowd heckled me from start to finish. Somehow I managed to keep my cool throughout, never reacting to anyone or anything. With the tennis gods shining brightly down upon me, I won the match pretty comfortably in front of all the people I so had wanted to impress.
A ray of hope
Exiting the court, I accepted congratulations from the first wave of onlookers. All the while, I kept my eye on Coach Bassett; he was waiting patiently for me some distance away. I approached him somewhat sheepishly, knowing he had seen some of my more recent outbursts. I had even heard through the grapevine he had declared that I would never, ever play for him at UCLA.
He enthusiastically shook my hand. He told how my match reminded him of a hostile conference road match, and how impressed he was that I had maintained my composure.
When he brought up my recent on-court antics, I completely lost it. He compared me to a couple of his more tempestuous former players, Jimmy Connors and Fritz Buehning. He said they were bad – but he’d never seen anything like me. Then he asked me, if I were to play for him at UCLA, which player would he be getting?
My heart skipped with excitement merely at the thought of playing for my dream school. I didn’t have the foresight to tell him he’d likely be getting both players. I assured him as well as I could that he would be getting the guy he just watched.
Coach Bassett agreed to watch me compete one more time the following day. He said if he liked what he saw, he’d like to talk to me about coming to play for him.
The Ojai showdown
My opponent the next day was Rick Leach, a USC recruit and a tough opponent I had always struggled against.
My strong play continued. Unfortunately, so did his.
Three hours and three sets later, I reached match point. He hit an overhead. I saw it out, and called it out. He protested my call like as any fierce competitor would.
All I had to do was walk up, shake hands and the match was mine. But with the good crowd and all the coaches watching, I froze.
What seemed like an eternity later, I gave in. I changed my call, giving him the point. I ended up losing that match.
Fair play pays off
Close to 100 people approached me afterwards telling me they thought the ball was out. But within a half-hour of shaking Leach’s hand, coach after coach came my way to congratulate me on my play – and my sportsmanship. Each offered a full scholarship to play for their school.
I saw Coach Bassett once again waiting for me, away from the crowd. Drained, exhausted, I hobbled over to him – hoping with all my heart he had liked what he saw, too.
He told me it was one of the best junior tennis matches – and finest displays of sportsmanship – he had ever seen. He told me he would be honored to have me as an incoming freshman at UCLA the following year.
He didn’t have to ask twice.
The dream began with my face pressed up against the fence at Libbey Park as a junior tennis player, watching big-time college tennis for the very first time. In those couple of days in Ojai, a year that was becoming a nightmare turned into a dream fulfilled.
Only at The Ojai.