Chapter Eighteen – Communities of Sport
I had been in search of an opportunity to fold amateur tennis into the IGTS Tour schedule and had been therefore pleased to learn that the Pac-10 Conference Tennis Championships would be in Ojai, CA. Good fortune was smiling on me, I thought, because 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 my humble quarters. While hosting the event in a small town located a fair distance from any major metro area seemed a bit unusual, I wasn’t about to complain.
OK, I just lied. I actually did start complaining—while trying to find the damn event. The town of Ojai is nestled in Ventura County, between Sulfer Mountain and the Topatopa Mountain Range. It’s a long and winding (albeit scenic) drive inland from the coast, so it didn’t surprise me that the town is populated by fewer than 9,000 people. From what little I knew of Ojai, I was aware that it was somewhat of a tourism destination, though, so it didn’t seem totally out of the ordinary that it would host a major collegiate tennis tournament. What did seem unusual to me as I navigated California Route 150 into Ojai, however, was how little effort had gone into promoting the Pac-10 Championships. Not a single sign or banner.
As I got closer to the picturesque town center, it became obvious that something called “The Ojai” was a much bigger priority that weekend. The whole place looked like the Fourth of July, except that banners proclaiming support for The Ojai assumed the traditional role of flags and bunting. And everybody had turned out. There were lines to get into at least two celebratory pancake breakfasts that I passed, and parking was hard to come by.
While it was a winsome environment, I found myself becoming annoyed. All I wanted to do was find someplace called Libbey Park and watch some tennis. And this quaint local celebration was in the way. After three passes up and down Ojai Avenue, I finally found a parking spot on a shady side street and hoofed it back to the center of town.
I intercepted the first passer-by that glanced my way. “Excuse me— can you help me find Libbey Park? I’m here to see the Pac-10 Tennis Championships, but all I’ve been able to spot are signs for The Ojai.”
He was a tanned, trim older gentleman, sporting a full head of slicked-back white hair, and he gave me a long look through eyes on loan from Clint Eastwood—as if trying to figure out whether I was putting him on. Finally he said simply, “Well, you’re definitely not from around here. And I’m guessing you’re not a tennis guy.”
I came clean on both accounts, and his steely gaze relaxed. “The Pac-10s are a part of The Ojai. And you’re standing in front of Libbey Park.”
And that was how I arrived at the pearly gates of tennis heaven. I thanked my personal St. Peter, crossed a small grassy quad, and entered a green thicket that stood as the entrance of the 110th presentation of The Ojai. That is not a typo. This grand dame of tennis tournaments has been in existence for longer than 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, but I wound up stumbling across a phenomenon of civic spirit. Purchasing my admission ticket opened the gates to an environment that was fantastic, idyllic, bucolic—pick any ic word you want (the good ones, I mean). And, oh yeah, the tennis was pretty good too.