Wimbledon In The Hills

Sometimes you just get lucky.

When crafting the schedule for the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, I was pleased to note that the Pac-10 Tennis Championships would be in Ojai, CA. Good fortune was smiling on me I thought, since of all places in the roughly 6.4 gajillion square mile region that the Pac-10 Conference covers, they chose to stage this championship in a place less than 100 miles away from the international headquarters of the IGTS Tour. While hosting the event in a small town located a fair distance from any major metro area seemed a bit unusual, I certainly wasn’t complaining. And had I been inclined to do so, yesterday I would’ve had to slap myself when I arrived at the pearly gates of tennis heaven – The Ojai.

Never has the word “nestled” come in handier, for as Ojai is nestled between Sulfer Mountain and the Topatopa Mountain range, Libbey Park is nestled in the center of the 8,000 population town – and the 110th presentation of The Ojai could only be described as nestled in the heart of Libbey Park. That is not a typo. The tournament has been in existence for over a century. To put this legacy in perspective consider that when the first Ojai was conducted in 1895, the state of California was only 45 years old.

I thought I was coming to a collegiate tennis championship and actually I was unknowingly attending a phenomenon of civic spirit. The environment is fantastic, idyllic, bucolic – pick any “ic” word you want (the good ones, I mean). And oh yeah, the tennis is pretty good too.

The shady path that winds from the front gate to the courts is lined with displays that feature the pictures of both winner and runner-up of every competition conducted each year since, well, I don’t know exactly how far back they went. But as I browsed later during a break in tournament action I was literally walking through a home-Polaroid version of tennis history. The Ojai maintains a Wall of Fame that consists of each of the 85 players who have competed in The Ojai and gone on to win one or more Grand Slam events. You may recognize some of the names:  Pete Sampras, Billie Jean King, Lindsay Davenport, Arthur Ashe, and local products Bob & Mike Bryan – the twin brothers who currently dominate men’s doubles worldwide.

There’s a picture taken in 1978 of Tracy Austin holding a trophy almost half her size for winning the Junior Girls division of The Ojai. A little more than a year later she was in the semi-finals at Wimbledon – and later on that same summer she became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Open. Further down the line, another picture grabbed my eye – this one of a 12-year old Michael Chang in 1984, hands thrust in his pockets and clearly chagrined at being the runner-up of the Under 14’s. He would recover from that devastating blow however and go on to win the French Open at the age of 17. This stuff was priceless.

But back to the initial reason for my visit:  the 2010 Pac-10 Men’s & Women’s Championships. In a move that redefined “hitching your wagon to a star”, The Pac-10 Conference linked up with The Ojai in 1954, when the men’s championships were folded into the overall tournament. In 1987 the women joined the party. And in fact, in addition to the Open competitions for men’s and women’s singles and doubles, The Ojai currently hosts men’s and women’s championships in the following categories:  Independent College, NCAA Division III, Community College, California Interscholastic Federation, Juniors 18 & Under, Juniors 16 & Under, and Juniors 14 & Under. The sheer number of matches contested is mind-boggling, and during the first day of the event, tennis courts are pressed into service all over the Ojai Valley. If you live there and have a decent size backyard, there’s a pretty good chance you awoke on Thursday to a match being played there.

And on this sunny Sunday morning, the field had been narrowed to a final match for each division, which provided more than enough options for entertaining tennis. I climbed into the bleachers at the end of Court #1, where the Women’s Singles final was just beginning. A tall, cool UCLA Bruin named Yasmine Schnack provided an interesting contrast to her opponent, Stanford’s Hilary Barte. If a scale even notices that Barte is standing on it, it probably registers something in the 90-pound range. A tiny, feisty lefty – and the 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year BTW – Barte was a bit quiet in losing the first set 4-6, but came roaring back in the second set, both in terms of her play and her vocal expression.

At that point, in an admittedly non-scientific experiment, I decided to track the impact value of the tennis grunt. The perfect opportunity to do so had presented itself, for Barte was a grunter, and Schnack was not. When the latter prevailed in straight sets, I concluded that grunting only serves to drain one’s energy level. I made a note to contact the USTA for instructions on how to claim the grant money that I now had coming to me. Imagine my confusion when in the subsequent Men’s Singles championship, a prolific grunter from USC, Robert Farah, beat a much quieter Bradley Klahn of Stanford in straight sets. Stymied as I was by this impasse, I trust that others will take up the pursuit of knowledge and continue collecting data on this.

The things I do for the world of sports.

To be continued…

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