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Ode to Ojai: UCLA men’s, women’s tennis play final Pac-12 championships

Weil Tennis Academy – host of the Pac-12 women’s tennis championship – is pictured. (Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin)

By Jack Nelson

May 1, 2024 10:44 p.m.

This post was updated May 7 at 9:20 p.m.

A haven resides comfortably within an incision in time. Turned relic by legend, it’s laden with memories and weathered by years past.

Spanish colonial arches indicate the entrance, decorated by green banners and insignia dating back over 100 years.

Walking the grounds is an exercise of tranquility. The background of a characteristic tennis soundscape is filled only by chirping birds and swaying leaves.

But this experience comes with an expiration date. Victimized by an era of change, this haven will become estranged from a longtime love.

Pac-12 tennis in Ojai, California, is no more.

UCLA men’s and women’s tennis bid their farewells to Ojai at the last-ever Pac-12 championships, played from Wednesday to Saturday. With both programs joining the Big Ten this summer and their current conference dissolving, the need for Libbey Park to host a collegiate conference tournament has dissipated.

“It’s going to suck,” said women’s tennis junior Elise Wagle. “I don’t know where we’re going to go next year, but we’re definitely going to miss this place a lot.”

(Jeremy Chen/Photo Editor)
Pac-12 tennis fans adorn the stands of Libbey Park. (Jeremy Chen/Photo Editor)

An aura of uncertainty lingered, complete with bittersweet feelings about an unexpected end. New circumstances did not manifest visually, though.

Traditions reigned.

A collection of community volunteers coalesced to work the tournament, eager to welcome attendees with a smile. Freshly-squeezed Pixie orange juice in the morning was followed by tea and cookies in the afternoon. The roaring applause of a raucous crowd easily cut through peaceful air.

After all, the Pac-12 championships were never the venue’s foundation.

Tennis in Ventura County’s rural gem goes all the way back to 1896 with the creation of the Ojai Tennis Tournament. It survives as one of the nation’s largest and oldest amateur tennis events, now featuring 27 divisions and 1200-plus athletes over five days every April.

Cancellations due to hoof-and-mouth disease in 1924, World War II from 1942 to 1946 and the COVID-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2021 each interrupted the timeline.

None could kill a staple of the Southern California tennis calendar.

“It’s hard to explain to people if you didn’t grow up watching these champions or seeing the boards or being here in the tea tent,” said 16-time Grand Slam doubles champion Bob Bryan. “But if you walk through the gates at Wimbledon, you’re going to feel something. You’re going to feel a different kind of emotion, and that’s the same thing with this tournament.”

UCLA’s tie to The Ojai began right with that of the Pac-12.

(Left to right, Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin, Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)
UCLA men’s tennis coach Billy Martin (left) is pictured alongside UCLA women’s tennis coach Stella Sampras Webster (right). (Left to right, Brianna Carlson/Daily Bruin, Jeremy Chen/Photo editor)

On the men’s side, Pacific Coast Conference matches were first played at the tournament in 1954, while the women took Pac-10 contests there in 1987. The latest iteration of the Pac-12 championships – defined by team dual-match play – has existed since 2012 for the men and 2017 for the women.

It’s a story with no shortage of twists and turns but which perpetually treasures its history.

Adorning a stone wall beside the grandstand is a “Wall of Fame” recognizing players who passed through The Ojai en route to a title at one of the four Grand Slams. It reads five names post-2000 familiar to UCLA tennis – Kimberly Po, Mark Knowles, Jean-Julien Rojer, Abigail Spears and Ena Shibahara.

Their legacies are entrenched, but none of them are the school’s greatest representative.

That would be Billy Martin.

“I’ve been so lucky to be associated with it for quite a long time, but the tournament will survive,” said the UCLA men’s tennis coach. “There’s so many other great events, and the community does such a great job of supporting it. So the tournament is not going to go away.”

Honored last year by tournament organizers, Martin’s contributions are considerable. After taking the courts at The Ojai as a junior and eventual college player, he has spent 41 years constructing a home away from home while in the coaching circle. He led the Bruins to conference tournament titles in four years from 2012 to 2018.

A similarly gargantuan figure has stood with him.

UCLA women’s tennis coach Stella Sampras Webster, sharing that junior and collegiate upbringing, has thrived at The Ojai in her guidance of singles and doubles champions – crowned before the format switched to dual-play in 2017. Seven singles champions and three doubles tandems donned the blue and gold under her watch.

Kyle McPhillips, Jennifer Brady and Catherine Harrison constituted a golden era of successive Pac-12 singles titles from 2013 to 2015.

“You do want to just stay here as long as you can because it’s such a great atmosphere to play in and (there is) so much history,” Sampras Webster said.

The love triangle between Ojai and the two programs – forged by Martin and Sampras Webster – produces bonds. Placing their shared campus in the rearview mirror, both teams come together in a tennis paradise.

Tournament play for the men has been held at Libbey Park since its inception, while the women have rotated from the Ojai Valley Athletic Club to the Weil Tennis Academy. But the schedules have always aligned, putting the squads on a regular collision course for the start of their postseasons.

Cherished memories have resulted.

“We have a great tradition of having dinner the night before our first matches at this place called Boccali’s,” Sampras Webster said. “And that’s probably the last time we’ll do that.”

(Jeremy Chen/Photo Editor)
The walk-through photo collages near Libbey Park’s entrance are pictured. (Jeremy Chen/Photo Editor)

Such occasions last week didn’t come with anticipation for next year. They’re just memories.

Walk-through collages surrounding the artery of the park will no longer add photos of Pac-12 champions. Wooden stands painted in green, engulfed by a lush canopy, will never again seat conference fans.

Those scenes are gone. Forever.

“The tournament’s evolved, and it’s always kept that mystique and tradition – it’s going to find something else,” Bryan said. “If it loses what we have right here, something else is going to pop up.”

An arena lost in time, The Ojai is forced to endure the Pac-12’s extinction.

The Bruins will fall into its past.

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Jack Nelson | Sports senior staff
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
Nelson is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a contributor on the men's tennis and women's tennis beats.
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