The Ojai Tennis Tournament turns 125 years old this week, but will do so without the playing one of the longest-standing and unique events in the world.
Because of the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic, Ojai Valley Tennis Club President Carolyn Burke called an emergency meeting March 15 where board members voted unanimously to cancel the 120th playing of the tournament. The Ojai began in 1896 and has been played 119 times over those 125 years. Headquartered in Ojai’s downtown Libbey Park, the celebrated tournament takes up just about every court in town, plus even more in Ventura County.This year’s cancellation marks only the sixth time the venerable tournament will not be played.
The Ojai annually hosts the Pac-12 Men’s and Women’s Championships, other collegiate draws, and men’s and women open prize money events. Essential Southern California junior divisions are also contested. More than 1,200 players take part in 27 events under the watchful eyes of more than 500 volunteers- the life-blood of the tournament – who each year welcome players, coaches and families, giving them a lifetime of memories that will forever be cherished.
NOTE: To watch The Ojai Tournament 2020 Video Tribute, click HERE.
In a 2000 story published by the Ojai Valley News, local historian Dave Mason reported that by 1923 the tournament was regarded already as widely popular all over Southern California. Mason referenced a Los Angeles Times article that said: “There is a recognized difference in the measure of interest and enthusiasm touching tennis contests, home talent capturing the lion’s share in so far as this community is concerned, while general interest hovers around the ‘Champs’ of other years.”
But in 1924 the tournament was cancelled as the tennis club voted to not hold the event because of the seriousness of the hoof-and-mouth disease among the cattle of the state and to assist in the quarantine rules and regulations put into force.
The April 19, 1924 issue of The Ojai newspaper reported that tournament founder and tennis club President William L. Thacher supported the stockmen of Oxnard’s request that the tournament be cancelled, even though some in the club were not in agreement.
“Some of the club members argued that other events were continuing to be held, such as Easter Sunrise services, track meets, baseball and auto meets, but Thacher desired to cooperate with the quarantine officers,” Mason wrote. “The motion passed and a letter was sent to all entrants who had sent in their applications in advance.”
In regard to the canceled tournament, the local paper said: “It does seem strange that the Ojai Valley should be urged to cancel as promising a Tournament as was in prospect when every other place in the country is going ahead with their various tournaments. Los Angeles is making no pretensions to give up any of her plays, and in a local paper there were announcements of several large events in Los Angeles for the coming week.”
The Ojai was also halted for four years during World War II from 1943-46, just one year after the 1942 tournament hosted a 14-year-old movie star Shirley Temple, who was then a student at Westlake girls’ school and came up to cheer on her teammates in the finals creating what the local paper called, “quite a sensation by her winsome friendliness” signing her albums for scores of fans. She also attended the school dance, said Ojai native Rose Boggs, who recalls Temple dancing with some of her friends.
Besides the war years, The Ojai has been a part of the 92-year-old Boggs’ entire life as her father was in charge of the maintenance of the Civic Center Courts (now Libbey Park).
“At least we aren’t sending our kids off to war to get killed, but sometimes it feels like it’s close to that,” said Boggs, who graduated from Nordhoff High School in 1944 and still walks a mile and does yoga every day. “There are more important things going on in the world right now than tennis.”
That doesn’t mean Boggs is a little sad she won’t be headed over to Libbey Park like she does each year to cheer on her Cal Bears. “I was in high school during the war years and everything was very low-key,” Boggs said. “Things were very restricted and you couldn’t leave town. We were given gas rationing coupons and you were limited. We didn’t have a prom as most of the boys from school were sent off to war. There was a night watchmen always walking around and we had to keep our shades drawn and couldn’t have any lights on at night.”
Looking through the local paper’s April editions from 1943 to 1946 recently, there were stories of high school students staying busy painting the Civic Center bleachers during the days the tournament was supposed to take place. A couple of junior events were also staged between the area’s private schools and Nordhoff High, which was then located on El Paseo Road where Matilija Middle School is presently.
Thacher thought he was doing the right thing in 1924, and wanted to cooperate fully with the locals’ pleas to not hold the tournament, to prevent the spread of the disease which had not yet hit the county. He stated: “The Ojai Valley people wishes this announcement to be made promptly and before there is any case in their neighborhood or in their county. They wish to cooperate cheerfully and thoroughly in the enforcement of all orders, requests and advice of the authorities in their difficult, important, disagreeable task. They agree real sportsmen should care tremendously about rules, regulations, and laws – even to their own disadvantage. They appreciate the disappointment to many – more than ever before for 124 entries came in last Saturday’s (April 12) mail alone from San Francisco to San Diego and points between.
“But forget it!” Thacher implored, “and save the last week in April, 1925 for the ‘best tournament yet!’
“May the dreaded disease soon be stomped out by the officers of the law. Perhaps we can help some.”
The current Ojai Valley Tennis Club wishes nothing but the same as Thacher did way back in 1924. Of course, the tournament resumed in 1925. Just like the 120th edition is scheduled to be played – and will be bigger and better than ever – April 21-25, 2021 at The Ojai.
– Steve Pratt