BILL DWYRE: In the wake of Ojai ’19, magical stories never end

If there is to be a contender in the sport of tennis to the traditions and aura of Wimbledon, you can find it by turning inland from Ventura and going about 25 miles into peace and quiet. You drive through Casitas Springs, where a sign tells you was “The Home of Johnny Cash,” and soon you have arrived in Ojai, which is nestled in rolling hills framed by majestic mountains.

There, on the last weekend of April, they hold a tennis tournament. They call it, simply, The Ojai.

Wimbledon has its strawberries and cream. Not to be outdone, Ojai has tea and cookies, freshly squeezed orange juice and, in a good year, pixie tangerines. No less than the legendary Jack Kramer had to survive on this culinary fare one year when, as was his tendency, he got into a late-night poker game, lost all his money and had to bulk up on cookies and oranges before his next match. It wasn’t enough.

He lost to Groucho Marx’s son.

Ojai has been around longer than some of the orange trees that fed Kramer. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1949. Next year (2020), it will celebrate its 120 th anniversary, or as the locals like to say, for the sake of accuracy, “125 years of tennis.” Ojai lost four years of the tournament to World War II and one to hoof-and-mouth disease. In 1924, there were not enough healthy horses to deliver players and fans from Los Angeles.

(Paul Del Signore)

Until tennis turned into the big purse, big money commercial enterprise it is today, with the advent of professional tennis in 1968, The Ojai was a can’t-miss stop for the best players in the world. The names are too numerous to mention all, but the likes of Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Billie Jean King, Bill Tilden, May Sutton Bundy, Alice Marble, Arthur Ashe, Tracy Austin, Jimmy Connors, Rosie Casals and Tony Trabert all played The Ojai. Pete Sampras won 14 Grand Slam titles, but he never got far enough at Ojai to play on the main courts at Libbey Park.

A plaque alongside Court One at Libbey Park, the tournament’s Wall of Fame, commemorates all the major champions who have played at Ojai. There are more than 80.

But the story of Ojai is not only that of the great players who have competed there. It is of a little town that still brings out 600 volunteers a year to run the event and is feverish in its pride of ownership and stewardship of tradition.

Rose Boggs was born in Ojai. She is 91, gets around with a couple of canes, but walks a mile or more every day, and still gets excited when the last weekend in April comes around.

“I was born on Linn Street,” she says. “That was before we had doctors around here to deliver babies. My mother had six children and only one was delivered by a doctor.”

Her father was the caretaker of Libbey Park, which is to Ojai what Central Park is to New York City. It is the four courts at Libbey Park, surrounded by well-maintained green bleachers, that remain the desired destination for tournament players. All the big matches are there today, as in the past.

Boggs says she started to hang around Libbey Park in 1939, when she was five, and fell in love with the game of tennis. She remembers tournaments, even back then, when tickets were purchased at a park entrance booth and a band of boy scouts patrolled the fences around the park to catch anybody trying to sneak in. She played the tournament for years until the 1970s. She was No. 1 on Cal Berkeley’s women’s club team, because women didn’t compete in college sports in those days.

“My partner and I played in The Ojai against Billie Jean King in doubles one year,” Boggs says. “I poached on her on the first point and got it. Then we lost, of course.”

She remains a loyal Cal Bear to this day, and says that it even carried over, somewhat unethically, to her duties as one of the many longtime officiating volunteers.

“I was in the umpire’s chair,” she says. “Arthur Ashe was at UCLA and he was playing somebody from USC. Certainly, if you are from Cal, you like that other school a lot less than UCLA. So, when they split sets and Arthur was sitting down before the third set, I leaned over and said to him: “All right now, get out there and win this. And he did.”

Mike Taggart is 81. He wasn’t born in Ojai, but he has no intention of ever moving away. He was passing through in 1958, on his way to Stanford, and stopped in Ojai on the recommendation of a friend, who said he would enjoy this delightful little place. Taggart stopped for lunch and struck up a conversation with a local couple, who found out he was an English teacher. They had an opening at one of Ojai’s schools, offered Taggart a job and he never left.

Among Taggart’s many connections to the tournament was his role, for 45 years, as a linesman. He specialized in calling the service lines, a tough job with so many world-class players and so many huge serves. He lived through a time when the officiating, as he tells it, might have been a little suspect, when, during off shifts, some officials would wander across the street from Libbey Park and have a drink or two. Umpires dozing off in high chairs courtside became an issue and soon, The Ojai, like all other major tournaments, went to professional umpires and line-callers.

There are a million Ojai stories, and Taggart can tell them all.

He recalls with relish “The greatest tennis point I ever saw, until Roger Federer (hit a shot between his legs): “It was in the 60s, I think,” Taggart says. “Rafael Osuna was playing Dennis Ralston at Libbey Park. He tried to lob over Ralston, but realized he had hit it too short. So he ran to the back of the court, ran up the fence and returned Ralston’s overhead smash with a backhand overhead while climbing the fence.”

Taggart and a bunch of his friends were courtside for a match involving Luke Jensen, the USC player who was ambidextrous.

“It was match point for Luke,” Taggart says, “and he was playing the guy right-handed all along. Then, suddenly, he had to go to his backhand side for a shot, ran to it and cracked the match winner with his left hand. We started chanting, ‘Dual Hand Luke! Dual Hand Luke!’”

It was Taggart who stepped forward in 2000, when the tournament was struggling to fill its brackets, especially in the open division. Major players no longer came to Ojai when they could go elsewhere and win money.

“We had a meeting,” Taggart says. “I had run into a guy who ran a tournament in San Diego, and he told me he had some pretty good players and the winning player got $600. So, I brought that up at the meeting and there was a lot of talk because we wanted to protect our amateur status. But we finally decided we had to have prize money. They asked, where will we get the money? I said I’d give it to them. I donated $10,000, thinking if San Diego can get good players for $600, think what we could do with $10,000.”

Taggart now donates $30,000 a year to Ojai’s purse. The age group players and the college players still compete for trophies, but the Open Division winners get paid. This year’s men’s singles champion, Brazilian Karue Sell, is ranked around No. 400 in the world, but made enough at Ojai to handle some expenses for qualifying-level pro tournaments in the weeks and months ahead.

When a happy Sell asked Ojai officials what he could do for the tournament, their answer applied to every tennis player and fan who loves the game and has experienced, at one time or another, the magic of Ojai.

“Just come back,” they told him.

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