Julie Heldman was twice ranked No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 5 in the world. She played on two winning Fed Cup teams, she won a gold, a silver, and a bronze at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and she had wins over every top player of her era. Julie won The Ojai Collegiate division in 1963 playing for Stanford, and fell in the 1964 final to Billie Jean Moffitt. In addition, Julie’s father Julius won The Ojai in 1937 playing for UCLA.
One of the founding members of the WTA Tour, Julie has recently released a memoir titled Driven: A Daughter’s Odyssey. Julie will be signing her book at The Ojai this Saturday from 12 noon to 2 p.m., at a discounted rate of only $15.
By Julie Heldman
My family moved to New York City in 1953, when I was seven, and once I started playing tennis, I learned that there was almost nowhere to play when the City’s weather was inclement. During the winter, I took a noisy and jangling subway ride from our apartment in Manhattan to play for at most three hours a week at Brooklyn’s Heights Casino. As a high school senior, I sought a college that had far better weather. In the early 1960s, only a few “tennis colleges” in Texas and Florida offered tennis scholarships for women, but they didn’t appeal to me. Both my parents had gone to Stanford, and that’s where I landed.
In September 1962, I flew from New York to San Francisco to start my life as a 16-year-old Stanford freshman. I knew that it lacked a women’s tennis team, but I pinned my hopes on the fact that several quality women players attended Stanford, and I hoped they’d practice with me. But once I arrived on campus, I discovered that those players were gone; that the main tennis center, where the men’s team practiced, was several miles across campus, and I didn’t have a car; and that although the “women’s courts” were close to my dorm, they were usually empty. My practices consisted of me walking to the women’s courts several times a week and waiting around for someone to show up. In other words, the tennis situation was grim.
Still, I hoped that the university would offer some assistance. I became momentarily optimistic when I received a phone call from a Mrs. Guthrie, who worked in the women’s P.E. department. She said she provided support for women tennis players, but it turned out that her help was limited to driving us to two tennis tournaments in the spring.
One of those tournaments was Ojai, which my dad had played when he was growing up in Southern California. In 1934, he lost to Joe Hunt in the finals of the Boys 15s event (Two years later, dad would beat Hunt in the finals of the U.S. National 18s.), and in 1937, he won the intercollegiate event on behalf of UCLA.
In April 1963, four women players, including me, piled into Mrs. Guthrie’s station wagon for the trek to Ojai. Dad had told me little about his junior career, so I didn’t know what to expect. So when we checked in, I was amazed to discover that the Ojai tournament was unique. It had over 1,500 competitors and it co-opted every single tennis court in the Ojai Valley. We discovered loads of friendly volunteers who filled us in on how the tournament would work. But the friendly volunteers couldn’t control the weather, and from the moment we arrived, we encountered constant rain storms, which prevented both practice and matches. My first match, which was postponed for rain, was scheduled for 10 AM. It was rescheduled the next day for 8:30 AM, and then the following day for 7:00 AM, both times rained out. The tournament committee must have been gnawing its knuckles, with all those matches to play. On the fourth day, to my horror, my match was rescheduled for 5:45 AM, which I considered inhuman. But that’s when Mrs. Guthrie earned her stripes. She promised to get up early and to wake me up after the rains had stopped. I was the happiest kid around when I opened my eyes at 7:00 AM and saw that rain was still descending. When the skies finally cleared, I won the Women’s Independent College division for Stanford, and Mrs. Guthrie drove us back to campus. She wasn’t a tennis coach, and she couldn’t help me with my game, but she was a kind woman, and I was grateful for that.
The following year, in April 1964, Mrs. Guthrie once again donned her chauffeur’s cap, and drove us to Ojai. This time, the skies were friendlier, but the competition was fiercer. Since the previous year, I had proudly won the U.S. National 18-and-unders, but on the other half of the draw sat Billie Jean Moffitt, two years older than I and perched near the top of U.S. women’s rankings. She had a reputation as a player with great promise, due to her athletic talent, her attacking style, and her ability to rise to the occasion. I’d previously played Billie Jean several times back east on grass courts, which suited her style, but not mine, as I was a ground stroker, and only once had I taken her to three sets. I hoped that I’d fair better on Ojai’s cement courts, but once again she beat me, and won Ojai on behalf of L.A. State.
After the finals, Mrs. Guthrie returned us to the Farm, where I signed up for six months in Stanford in France, from September 1964 through March 1965. After I finished my studies there, I played tournaments in Europe for several months, and I caught the travel bug big time. So for many years, I indulged my wanderlust, and the result was that I never again competed in the Ojai tournament. No matter where I played, I never found another tournament with 1,500 participants, and I was never again scheduled to play a match at 5:45 AM.