You might want to turn off the TV and or the computer for a while and head out to Westwood because today, tomorrow and Sunday are the last three days of the 86th annual Farmers Classic tennis tournament at UCLA. Presented by Mercedes-Benz, it’s L.A. County’s only top-tier pro tennis event ($700,000 total prize money, $100,000 to singles champion). Worth noting is the tournament’s rich history as for decades it was America’s number two tennis event, right behind the U.S. Championship (which became the U.S. Open).
The year was 1927 when the famed Los Angeles Tennis Club first hosted the event. Calvin Coolidge was president, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs and Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in an era known as the “Roaring Twenties.” (What will this era be known as? The “Texting Teens?”)
Originally the Pacific Southwest Open, the first champion was Big Bill Tilden. Subsequent winners have been the greatest players in tennis history, including: Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Connors, Courrier, Chang, Ashe, Laver, Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez, who won in ‘49, ‘69 and again in ‘71 when, at 43, he defeated Jimmy Connors, a month shy of 19.
In the glory days, Hollywood stars flocked to the tournament to see and be seen. The likes of Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard showed up regularly. While recuperating from a broken hip, Joan Bennett was such a tennis fan that she hired an ambulance to bring her daily to watch matches from her patio box. For me, it was always fun to see Johnny Carson, America’s all-time favorite talk show host, studiously taking in the action from his front-row box.
In 1968, Rod Laver became the first L.A. Champion of the Open era and added a second title in 1970.
“So many stars would come out to watch the matches,” Laver said in awe, “it was like a who’s who of Hollywood.”
It was also a who’s who of tennis.
But were the good old days as good as we remember? Yes, tennis was filled with glamor and glory, but just below the surface was racial and religious discrimination. As late as the mid-’50s, players of color and Jews were excluded.
For example, Harvard-educated James Blake would not have been allowed to compete because he’s black. As it happens, Blake has an amazing story. Ranked as high as No. 4 in the world, in 2004 he broke his neck after slipping on the clay and colliding with the net post. Blake also developed shingles, which paralyzed half his face and blurred his sight. (And he also lost his father to cancer.)
But with tons of hard work, in 2005 Blake was named Comeback Player of the Year. And in 2007 he wrote his autobiography “Breaking Back: How I Lost Everything and Won Back My Life,” which became a N.Y. Times best-seller. He lost at UCLA this past Tuesday in a third set tiebreaker but my guess is he’s got his priorities set as he and fiancé Emily Snider have a brand new baby, Riley Elizabeth, who was born last month.
Another tremendous comeback story is Brian Baker. Sidelined after five surgeries, Baker was off the tour for six years but his love for the game never waned. And amazingly, this past Wimbledon he reached the fourth round and is currently ranked 79th in the world. Baker lost in the first round here but it’s only a minor setback given his remarkable year.
In the meantime, 24-year-old local boy Sam Querrey (born in Thousand Oaks), the second seed, is very much in the hunt . The big-serving, two-time winner of this event cruised Wednesday night to a first round victory 6-2, 6-2 much to the delight of his many fans, “the Samurai” cheering group. Each time Sam served an ace, the group banged a loud gong and chanted their practiced cheers. The final is on Sunday and many are hoping for a Querrey vs. top-seeded Frenchman Benoit Paire title match.
Reflecting on the tournament got me to thinking. Certainly, life’s great memories are to be cherished and even idealized. But for Baker, back after six years, and Blake with a new baby, and maybe for all of us, the good old days can also be now.