Marcos Giron was 14 years old when he first competed in the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament in 2008.

Taken in 2013 at The Ojai Tennis Tournament played at Libbey Park in downtown Ojai. Marcos Giron of Thousand Oaks was playing No. 1 for the UCLA Bruins in the championship match of the Pac-12 Championships against rival USC. UCLA won the match. PHOTO CREDIT: Holly Roberts.

And although he didn’t win that year, he later went on to win future tournaments in Ojai, which paved his way to winning the singles title at the NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championship for UCLA in 2014.

“Being 14 years old, I didn’t realize how big this event really was; I figured, I’m just gonna go and do as well as I can,” recalled Giron, 23, a resident of Thousand Oaks who has played tennis competitively since the age of 9.

“I was always looking for tournaments in Southern California, and Ojai was always there,” Giron said. “They’d write about it in the newspaper, and everybody that I competed with and practiced with would play in this massive event. Being a relatively local tournament, I was really excited to play. Back then, I didn’t realize how big this event really was.”

Giron led the UCLA Bruins to the Pac-12 Conference title in 2013 and 2014.

Today — as a professional tennis player who was given a wild card entry into the 2014 U.S. Open — Giron looks back on the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament with great pride.

“Whenever I competed, there were always people better than me, and I wanted to improve, no matter what,” Giron said. “It was always motivating going to Ojai, playing in front of the crowd on the home court against really tough competition. And there are many times in practice when I think about my matches in Ojai.”

117 years

Now going into its 117th year, the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament will take place April 26 through 30 at venues throughout western Ventura County, and will be headquartered at Libbey Park in downtown Ojai. The event, made possible by more than 750 volunteers, will include 26 divisions and more than 1,200 players.

From left to right: Dennis Ralston finished runner-up to winner Arthur Ashe in the 1964 Men’s Collegiate Singles final; Billie Jean Moffitt (King) of Cal-State L.A. defeated Stanford’s Julie Heldman in the 1964 Independent College women’s singles final; Stan Smith of Pasadena beat Tom Karp of University High in the 1964 Boys’ High School final.

The tournament is put on annually by the Ojai Valley Tennis Club Inc., a nonprofit organization whose mission is the promotion of interest in tennis and physical fitness, as well as the provision of recreational facilities for young people and the combating of juvenile delinquency.

Many of the greats of tennis have played in Ojai, including 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, Pete Sampras and the Bryan twins. The Wall of Fame at the grandstand in Libbey Park names 91 players who competed at Ojai and won one or more of the major championships that make up the tennis Grand Slam.

“I can’t think of too many events that are like this, where it takes boys and girls from high schools, men’s and women’s open divisions. … It’s a massive event and I’ve never seen an event quite like it,” Giron said. “It’s very high-level competition, but it’s also very laid back. It’s a good time and good fun.”

Most unique tennis tournament

Mark Weil, who runs the Weil Tennis Academy in Ojai, will have about 70 of his students competing in several different divisions this year.

“We’ve got alumni academy graduates who are competing for Pac-12 schools in the men’s and women’s opens; we have alumni coming back to Ojai to compete in the professional tournament as well, which is exciting,” said Weil of Ojai.

Cal-Berkeley junior J.T. Nishimura hits a serve for the Golden Bears in the 2016 Pac-12 men’s semifinal victory against USC.

Students in his academy have been competing in the Ojai tournament for the last two decades.

“This is the largest tennis tournament in the world as far as the number of players, and it’s getting bigger every year,” Weil said.

“Also, it’s the Pac-12 conference team championships, which is huge. Stanford, UCLA, USC, Berkeley … are part of the Ojai tournament,” Weil noted. “It’s a big tradition for them to play in Ojai, and they look forward to it because it’s like going into a resort town and focusing on competition — while also enjoying the atmosphere and the community.”

Weil added that another fun fact about the Ojai event is that it’s the only tournament in the world that involves junior, college and professional competitions.

“There’s no other tournament like it anywhere on the planet,” Weil said. “It’s also incredibly unique that it’s been going on for 117 years. It’s not new, and it’s funny that nobody has tried to copy this template. But if anybody comes here and experiences this tournament, they’re going to want to create one in their own community.”

You don’t have to be a tennis player to enjoy the tournament, Weil further emphasized.

“It’s exciting competition that’s up-close and accessible,” he said. “I think this tournament has a life of its own. It’s vibrant, it’s relevant, and it’s so meaningful to so many young tennis players. We all feel a tremendous responsibility to not only keep this event alive, but to improve it every single year. We want to share this with everybody.”

Dating back to 1896 — A timeline of the past

In 1887, Sherman Day Thacher came to Ojai intending to become a farmer and grow citrus, and built a stone house on 160 acres located in east Ojai Valley. It wasn’t long before Thacher discovered that he needed financial assistance. So he began tutoring students on-site, which was then known as Casa de Piedra.

A few years later, his brother, William Thacher, came to Ojai Valley in 1890 for a wedding, and ended up staying to help his brother with the tutoring school. At the time, William Thacher was already the New England and intercollegiate tennis doubles champion while he was a junior at Yale University in 1886.

In 1892, the first tennis court in the Ojai Valley was built on the Casa de Piedra school grounds, and the first tennis tournament in Ojai was played on that court one year later. In 1894, Sherman Thacher helped found the Ojai Athletic Club, and the following year, William Thacher decided to establish a club specifically devoted to tennis.

With that, the Ojai Valley Tennis Club was born. The club quickly began to sponsor competition, and in 1896, the Ojai Valley Tennis Club absorbed the Athletic Club with William Thacher as president.

The first competition began in 1896 with a challenge to the Ventura Tennis Club. The following year, the Ojai Tennis Club sponsored an intercounty competition, partnering with Ventura to challenge Santa Barbara. They later combined forces with Ventura and Santa Barbara to challenge Los Angeles and Pasadena.

In the fall of 1897, William Thacher announced that a state tournament would commence in 1898, pitting the best players of northern and southern California in a round-robin match. At this point, the entire town of Ojai was involved, decking out the town with decorations and social events.

The turn of the century

In 1899, attendance was almost 700 over the weekend of the finals. By the turn of the century, the tournament lasted three days and offered expanded categories, with entry fees costing a mere 50 cents.

In 1905, more than 100 competitors were involved, and two years later, girls’ interscholastic competition was introduced. By 1912, there were 272 entrants in 12 events, making the Ojai Tennis Tournament the largest of its kind in America.

In 1916, women’s intercollegiate competition was added. And despite the looming war, the competition was held, with the proceeds of the 22nd Ojai turned over to the Red Cross. That same year, a major fire burned much of the Ojai Valley, forcing the tournament to move to Los Angeles in 1918 — marking the only year the competition was held elsewhere.

In 1924, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease infected California livestock, causing travel restriction in much of the state. As a result, the 29th Ojai tournament was canceled.

The familiar backdrop of the Topa Topa Mountains in the background, The Ojai Tennis Tournament as seen in 1954. The Ojai has been held every year since 1896 except for five years; 1924 because of a cattle hoof and mouth disease and for four years (1943-46) because of World War II.

Fortunately, the tournament returned in 1925, continuing to grow and prosper for years to come. Complimentary fresh-squeezed orange juice — which was a product of the Ojai Valley — was offered to players and spectators in the early 1930s as a yearly tradition that continues today.

In 1943, with World War II in full fury, the tournament was canceled again, and didn’t return until 1947. The tournament then re-staked its claim to the last full weekend in April, offering its competition on the town’s public courts — as well as other courts that could be secured in the Ojai Valley and northern Ventura County.

In 1951, team competition was emphasized with trophies awarded in the collegiate division. At the same time, with the advent of professional tennis, many of the name players stopped competing in Ojai.

In 1954, the colleges that make up the current Pac-12 split off from the other four-year colleges to form their own athletic conference. Today, the annual Pac-12 men’s and women’s championships are held in Ojai, and are known as the biggest highlight of the five-day competition.

Volunteer force makes tournament possible

This year, thousands of spectators are expected to fill the Ojai Valley for five days to watch the finest in amateur tennis. As part of the annual tradition, guests can enjoy fresh-squeezed orange juice in the mornings, and tea and cookies in the afternoon, all provided by a tennis club that has no courts of its own and no paid employees.

“The community support is unprecedented,” Weil said. “I’ve never seen a volunteer force like those involved in the Ojai tournament.”

Steve Pratt, marketing and media manager of the Ojai Tennis Tournament, agreed that the volunteers who make the event possible “are the pride that give their time — there’s not any paid staff that makes this happen.”

Anne Williamson has been volunteering with the Ojai Tennis Tournament for more than 22 years. She was formerly the tournament director for the entire event, and today she is the tournament director for the open division, which involves prize money.  

“I have had notables such as Sam Querrey win my tournament before they went pro — Mackenzie McDonald also won it at the age of 17 before he went into UCLA, and has now left UCLA to go on the pro circuit,” Williamson said.

Rod Laver named special honoree

This year’s tournament will feature a special honoree: Rod Laver, who is considered “tennis royalty” as one of the greatest players of the game. Known during his playing days as “Rocket” Rod Laver, he the only men’s player ever to win two calendar-year Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969.

Laver will be the guest of honor during a barbecue on April 27 at Libbey Park. On April 28, he will be recognized at a special “Evening With Rod Laver” at the Topa Mountain Winery. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.ojaitourney.org.

“I have heard so many great things about the Ojai Tournament from my good friend Stan Smith,” said Laver, who recently presented the trophies to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal after the singles final played at Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open. “I’m really excited to be named this year’s tournament honoree.”