- Check out this great article in this morning Ojai Valley News on Joe Hunt, whose memory will be honored during the Thursday Night BBQ at The Ojai.
Talented and handsome, Joe Hunt took the tennis world by storm in the ‘30s and ‘40s. (Photo courtesy of the Hunt family)
Misty Volaski, Ojai Valley News editor
You’ve probably never heard of tennis great Joe Hunt. But if his plane hadn’t crashed into the Atlantic during World War II, Hunt could’ve been a household name on par with the likes of Jack Kramer, Billie Jean King and John McEnroe.
During the late 1930s and early ’40s, Hunt was consistently ranked among the top five players in America. To this day, he’s the only male tennis player to win the following championship titles: National Boys 15s, National Junior Men’s 18s, Men’s Intercollegiates, and the Men’s U.S. National Championships. He beat Kramer in an epic battle in 1943 for the U.S. National (now known as the U.S. Open) title.
That win — and his participation in “The Ojai” — placed Hunt’s name on “The Ojai” Wall of Fame at Libbey Park’s court one.
Although his accomplishments have been buried in record books for decades, a long-forgotten trophy found at an estate sale in Los Angeles is helping tennis fans remember.
Hunt’s great-nephew, named after his uncle, grew up playing tennis like many other members of his father’s family. He loved poring over family scrapbooks detailing his uncle’s many achievements. One day, while rummaging through his grandmother’s garage, young Hunt found “a big barrel that had a lot of trophies in it, just kinda stuffed in there,” he remembers. One of those was the 1938 Ojai Tennis Tournament Men’s Intercollegiate Doubles trophy.
He later discovered that his uncle had also won the singles title that same year, but that trophy, he thought, was lost like many others. “We have very few of his trophies,” he says. “There are a lot out there, we just don’t know where.”
So when Hunt got a call from the Ojai Valley Tennis Club (OVTC) a few months ago telling him they’d found the 1938 Ojai Men’s Singles trophy, Hunt was floored.
OVTC’s Steve Pratt explained that a friend and collector of tennis memorabilia had come across the trophy on Ebay. The friend purchased it from self-described picker and Ebay store owner Sandy Marks, of Thousand Oaks.
While at an estate sale in Beverly Hills late last year, Marks spotted some old trophies in a corner. “The house was very dilapidated, a tear-down house,” she recalls. “Initially I didn’t even want to go in! … it was terrible inside. But I saw a couple of vintage trophies on this table, and I know those are collectibles now. So I got that one (Hunt’s trophy), and another one that was an old dog show trophy. I think I paid $10 apiece for them. I thought that was a bit high; I’d never done trophies before.”
The long-lost 1938 Men’s Intercollegiate Singles trophy will be presented to the younger Joe Hunt at the tournament’s annual Thursday night barbecue. (photo courtesy Ojai Valley Tennis Club)
But she put them on her Ebay store anyway, thinking, “Someone’s gonna know what this is, and sure enough the right person found it!”
She sold Hunt’s trophy for $66, Pratt said, and his friend donated it to the OVTC. “Sandy overnighted it (to us),” he says. “I opened the box and there’s this great 10-inch-diameter silver cup. The inscription on it said, ‘Ojai Intercollegiate Singles, 1938.”
But there was no name inscribed. So Pratt dug through the OVTC records and found the name Joe Hunt. “I love tennis, but I didn’t recognize that name,” Pratt says. He eventually found a 1993 Sports Illustrated story online, commemorating Hunt’s historic battle against Kramer for the U.S. singles title. He beat Kramer, 6-3, 6-8, 10-8, 6-0. “If American tennis ever had a golden boy,” wrote Bud Collins in the article, “it was the handsome, flaxen-haired Hunt.” It suddenly clicked for Pratt. “I remembered a tennis player who’d been killed in the war.” So he kept researching and finally found a phone number for Hunt’s namesake. “I think he almost dropped the phone,” chuckles Pratt.
They started talking about Joe, who died a few weeks before his 26th birthday. The younger Hunt told Pratt of his ongoing efforts to get his uncle inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions. “Jack (Kramer) told me that when Joe died, he lost his most important rival,” Hunt wrote in a letter to the International Tennis Writer’s Association. “By the time they made it through the juniors, Joe had won six U.S. national titles (two singles and four doubles) while Jack had one doubles. Joe won the National Intercollegiate Singles and Doubles. Jack never did. Joe entered the top 10 of Men’s U.S. National rankings in 1936 at the age of just 17. Jack did not make it into the top 10 until 1940, when he was 19 …Joe was never ranked below Jack when they competed in the same years.”
“This guy was special,” says Pratt. So he and Hunt agreed that Hunt should come to this year’s Ojai Tennis Tournament. Hunt will be presented with his uncle’s trophy at the tournament’s annual Thursday night barbecue.
For Hunt, “The Ojai” holds a special place in his heart. Not only did his uncle complete, he and his son did as well. “I didn’t do as well as he (my uncle) did, though!” he laughs. He does remember playing for Santa Barbara High School in his senior year, and going with a group of his buddies to watch Tracy Austin compete. “The big news was that Tracy Austin, this 14-year-old, was going to be playing the Women’s Open, so we said, ‘OK, let’s go watch this little girl play tennis.'” They got more than they were expecting. “Her mom was strolling around in a mink coat, and tried to talk all of us 18-year-old boys into being ball boys for her daughter. It was just a hilarious moment!”
As a spectator, he remembers watching “all of the greats there (in Ojai),” he says. He’s looking forward to returning to Ojai this week, after many years away.
“This is a huge honor for my family. Huge. For a tournament like Ojai to pay attention to one of their former champs in this way, it’s really meaningful for our family,” Hunt says. “I wouldn’t miss it in a million years, this opportunity.”
Tennis fans can meet Hunt and see the trophy at the annual Thursday night barbecue, at the upper Libbey Park courts. A free chicken and tri-tip dinner starts at 5:15 p.m., followed by youth activities, the presentation of Hunt’s trophy, and an interview with legendary Stanford tennis coach Dick Gould. (See Page A10 for more on Gould.) See theojai.net for a full list of this week’s events.