This weekend there will be a sporting event that’s been taking place for over 100 years right here in Ventura County. It’s a nationally known and respected competition that some of its sport’s most legendary players have competed in. Have no clue what we’re talking about? Don’t feel bad. If you don’t follow tennis, you get a pass; but it’s time to get educated.
Celebrating its 115th year, the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, better known as The Ojai, takes over the Libbey Bowl in downtown Ojai and over 30 other locations throughout Western Ventura County for five days of amateur and collegiate-level tennis.
The history of the event has its roots in the history of Ojai itself. Here’s the long story made somewhat short.
In 1887 a gentleman by the name of Sherman Day Thacher came to Ojai to become a farmer. After building a house on 160 acres of land, and in need of more money for his farm, he started tutoring students on his ranch, which ultimately became a school.
His brother, William Thacher, a tennis doubles champion at Yale, came to visit in 1890 for a wedding, and stayed on to help with the school. In 1892, he built the first tennis court in Ojai, on the school grounds. The following year, the first tennis tournament in Ojai was held on that court in 1893.
Sherman Thacher helped fund the Ojai Athletic Club in 1894, and the next year his tennis-loving little brother, William, decided to form the Ojai Valley Tennis Club. The two clubs merged in 1896 and started competing with a challenge to the Ventura Tennis Club.
In the fall of 1897, the Thacher brothers decided to go big, holding, in 1898, a state tournament that the entire town of Ojai got involved in, including the local railroad, which added extra trains and special fares to help bring in out-of-towners.
Then in 1899, the year that many consider to be the first “Ojai,” the tournament adopted a single-elimination format and added interscholastic matches. Over 700 tennis fans attended, and that number of people visiting a quaint little town bounded by mountains at the turn of the century was nothing short of an economic boom.
Through wars, disease, floods, fires and the advent of professional tennis, the club and tournament have adapted, survived and gone on to see an unbelievable number of participants, 89 at last count, go on to win one or more of the major championships that make up tennis’s “Grand Slam.”
The names of the players that have competed at The Ojai literally read like a who’s who of tennis royalty. Here’s a sampling: Bill Tilden, Tony Trabert, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Pancho Gonzales, Alex Olmedo, Stan Smith, Jimmy Connors, Tracy Austin, Michael Chang, Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras. Even for those of us who don’t usually follow tennis, at least a few of those names have to ring a bell.
This year, along with the high-level competition and the proud history, what fans of The Ojai are really excited about, is the return of one of its favorite former champions, Stan Smith.
Stan Smith will be making an appearance at the tournament this weekend.
Long before Smith was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, he first made a name for himself winning The Ojai’s collegiate title in 1967, 1968 and 1969.
Smith, the former No. 1 player in the world and a Wimbledon champion, will be the featured guest throughout the event, appearing atmultiple events, including a wine and cheese reception in his honor, the tournament’s popular barbecue and, of course, several of the matches themselves.
Now living in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and running his own junior tennis academy, the 68-year-old legend, also known for the Adidas sneaker that bears his name, insists that The Ojai holds a fond place in his heart.
“The highlight of playing at The Ojai was getting to play on a private court,” Smith explained. “The main goal, of course, was to play on the main Libbey Park courts. That was really special. And the orange juice stand was the other highlight. It’s funny how certain things stand out in your mind.”
While Smith’s beloved orange juice stand may no longer be there (fear not, OJ is still served in the morning), thousands of tennis fans are still expected to attend, not to mention over 1,500 players from all over the country. It’s a true opportunity to see tomorrow’s tennis stars today in some truly beautiful locations.
The Ojai is yet another event that proves Ventura County, though devoid of any team in the big four of American professional sports (baseball, football, basketball and hockey), is still home to some of the most interesting and historic sporting events in the United States.
The 115th Annual Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament takes place April 22 to 26. For more information on The Ojai, including specials events, tournament schedules and locations, visit www.ojaitourney.org and www.facebook.com/theojaitennistournament.