In the Garden at Ojai

On the road with the tennis team, it s all work, all play-and all good.

July/August 2006

Reading time min

In the Garden at Ojai

Photo: Rich Reid

Junior All-American Theresa Logar is up 40-love in her game. But still she sputters at herself and at her racquet, willing it to add more topspin to her cross-court shots.

On the sidelines, team co-captain and senior All-American Alice Barnes is cheering loudly for Logar—“Go, T.Lo!”—and trying to suppress a giggle. “Theresa has two speeds—frantic and more frantic,” Barnes says. “She hasn’t quite caught the Ojai spirit.”

The eight Californians on the varsity squad of 11 grew up playing in the junior tournament at Ojai, on sun-drenched courts beneath the Sulfur Mountains. Freshman Megan Doheny watched collegiate players from afar for years. Then, last spring, Stanford acceptance letter in hand, she made a bold move: “I finally, actually talked to some players.”

Green banners that stretch across the town streets proclaim simply “The Ojai.” To add “tennis tournament” would be superfluous. Fans have been gathering here for 106 years, at more than 100 courts, to clap politely for service aces and to observe timeless rules of etiquette posted on unobtrusive signs: “Please refrain from walking in the aisles during play.” “No black shoes (or non-tennis shoes with black soles) permitted on the courts. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Each year Stanford players return to their favorite bungalows at the Blue Iguana Inn on the outskirts of town, where a huge cement lizard with inlaid blue tiles keeps guard over a crushed stone driveway and croquet lawn. The team shops at Vons for breakfast and courtside staples: Honey Bunches of Oats, English muffins and bananas, plus Lemon Lime and Glacier Freeze Gatorade. And they know where they want to dine. “It’s always Sea Fresh the first night,” says senior Joanna Kao, a veteran of the tournament. “And Boccali’s the next.”

Each road trip has its own quirks and traditions, but there’s one constant for student-athletes. “Work will get done,” says head coach Lele Forood, as players gather at San Francisco International Airport and she asks for a show of hands of those who have midterms coming up. When the twin-prop commuter plane takes off, out come the course readers. Logar has a six-page paper due on Cervantes’ Entremeses, a series of one-act plays the Spanish novelist penned in the 1560s.

Two rows back, freshman Jessica Nguyen is deep into calculus problem sets, and sophomore Whitney Deason is highlighting readings for a French seminar. Kao, on the other hand, has made time for a little light reading: she’s buried in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

As the red-tile roofs and aquamarine swimming pools of Santa Barbara draw closer, another tradition clicks in: the landing photo. Players from four rows squeeze, somehow, into one frame. That shot is followed, minutes later, by a group-hug photo in the parking lot of the rental car agency. “We’re always waiting for cars,” senior Anne Yelsey says. “It’s a tradition.”

Within an hour, the players are getting down to business. They have two hours of practice on the oak-shaded courts of the Ojai Valley Athletic Club, and as they unpack their bulging Babolar, Wilson and Prince bags, Forood, ’78, picks up a broken racquet—“there will be many”—and takes it into the clubhouse to be restrung. She also goes hunting for a broom to sweep leaves off the courts, and leans on it as she dispenses quiet advice. “Set up early,” Forood says to Nguyen, who is reaching for a first serve. To sophomore Lejla Hodzic, also practicing her serve: “Straighten it out and go forward.”

The players are still working out the local kinks when they gather for movies at one of the Blue Iguana rooms that evening. “The ball bounces differently on every court,” Barnes is saying as she pops corn in the microwave. “It’s higher in Ojai, especially on the back courts.” Good advice, but most of the energy in the room is focused on choosing a DVD from the stack Yelsey has brought. The two finalists are Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth version) and The Cutting Edge. The romantic story of two figure skaters at a winter Olympics comes up the winner, partly because everyone knows the dialogue, but mostly because it was a favorite during the national indoor championships in Wisconsin in February. “I love the big dramatic moments—they’re so ’90s,” says senior Jessica Leck. Sophomore Celia Durkin, in her first year on the team after transferring from Harvard, already has her favorite moment: “Here comes the hair flip.”

The opening day of the Pac-10 women’s tournament dawns gunmetal gray, punctuated by bright yellow Western tanagers that dart through the coast live oaks. Team parents who’ve driven to Ojai—Brian Leck, the Dohenys, Durkins, Kaos, Nguyens and Yelseys (who will brief Whitney Deason’s father, Brad)—clutch paper cups of coffee and yell as much encouragement as they can muster at 8 a.m. The extended Stanford tennis family is present, too: assistant coach Frankie Brennan has brought along his wife and daughters, and his father, longtime Cardinal coach Frank Brennan, is on the scene as well.

Missed shots elicit a cheery “Right back!” and Mike Durkin has particular praise for one of his daughter’s zingers: “That’s what Lele’s been wanting her to do—to put the pressure on.” The coach has her own reward system for Ojai: “We’re having a nice dinner tonight, so let’s go out and earn it.”

Leck, ’67, played varsity tennis on the Farm and has been coming to Ojai since 1958; his daughter Jessica, he says, has been playing here “forever.” Karen Yelsey recalls the years when she helped Anne get ready for local matches. “Now all we do is show up,” she says with a huge smile.

Although the tournament’s atmosphere is competitive, it doesn’t have the same intensity as the recently concluded Pac-10 dual meets. “We’re all student-athletes, and these are really nice girls,” says Barnes, the 2006 Northwest regional winner of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Arthur Ashe Award for Leadership and Sportsmanship. Minutes after winning her opening matches against UCLA’s Alex McGoodwin (6-1, 6-1) and against Arizona State’s Roxanne Clarke (6-2, 6-3), Barnes, an art history major who is ranked No. 5 in the nation in singles, huddles in the shade with three Cal players and a can of AriZona Green Tea. You’d think they’d be talking tennis, but actually they’re discussing architecture in ancient Greece.

As the first day’s matches come to an end, Logar is still battling against UCLA’s Riza Zalameda. Libby Doheny, the only Stanford mom in a bleacher full of UCLA fans, is doing her Cardinal best, but Logar is getting a number of questionable line calls, and her teammates start to watch every shot carefully. The nine Cardinal players confer and then stride onto the adjoining court with their coach, to form a line of silent witnesses. “They didn’t have to do that,” Logar says after a three-hour, 16-minute tiebreaker victory. “But it was awesome.”

As the three days of competition continue, players find time between morning and afternoon matches to pull course readers from their racquet bags and retreat to quiet spots with orange and blue highlighters. Deason will finish writing a paper about the death penalty, and Nguyen will outline a six-page Introduction to the Humanities paper about how the Jewish-Czech writer Franz Kafka and sociologist Max Weber relate to each other in German cultural history. “The last [road] trip was no work, but this happens to be a hectic, hectic week,” she says. “And I’ve got midterms during the NCAAs, so I have to keep on track.”

Nguyen, a freshman from Chatsworth, Calif., whose brother is playing for UCLA in Ojai, will go on to place second in the Pac-10 invitational singles. And Barnes and Yelsey will nail an 8-4 victory over Cal’s Suzi Babos and Zsuzsanna Fodor for their second straight conference doubles title.

The team’s reward? Returning—twice—for that promised dinner in the garden of Boccali’s, a local pizza and pasta establishment. With the Santa Ynez Mountains for a dramatic backdrop and the scent of orange blossoms in the air, players celebrate with the dessert they spend a full year dreaming about: a mile-high strawberry shortcake.

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