For the past 42 years, the end of July has meant that the Big Al’s Tennis Tournament is back for another round of tennis.
This weekend comes Chapter No. 43 in Ashland.
With a field pushing 170 entrants, Big Al’s gets underway on Friday with rounds spread out all throughout Ashland. No matter if it’s at Hunter Park, the Ashland Fitness & Tennis Club or Lithia Park, the Big Al’s tournament field will be taking over tennis courts all over town.
“Over the years tennis tournaments have dwindled in size and popularity because there are a lot of other avenues to play competitive tennis now,” Big Al’s tournament director Gail Patton said, “but the really nice thing about this tournament is that we’ve held steady and we are one of the biggest tournaments, if not the biggest, in Oregon.”
Patton, who is the current tennis pro at Ashland Fitness & Tennis Club, is in her second year running the show for the Big Al’s tournament. Wearing many hats is basically a given for her and her group of volunteers at this point. Neither is the possibility of some very good tennis happening over the three days of competition.
“It’s always really hectic going right into the tournament. Last year we had a very experienced crew of volunteers who had been doing this for a year time, and this year it just happened where those people in the long-term positions are going to be out of town,” Patton said. “It’s a bit more on my shoulders, but other volunteers have stepped up to help, so I couldn’t do it without them.”
The tournament, which runs Friday through Sunday, will have the same 8 a.m. start time all three days.
Five different venues and a total of 18 courts will field matches throughout the weekend, with the tournament hub located at Hunter Park. Other locations include: Ashland Fitness & Tennis Club (four indoor courts), Ashland Hills Inn, Lithia Park and Helman School.
Most of the participants taking part in the tournament are from Southern Oregon or Northern California, with players also coming from Eugene and Salem in Oregon, the San Francisco Bay Area and even as far as Indiana.
The men’s open singles division will be headlined by defending tournament champion Rox Rogers, who is coming off another strong season during his senior campaign at Ashland High.
Rogers advanced to the OSAA Class 5A championship match for the second straight season this past spring and plans to play tennis at NCAA Division III school George Fox University come the fall.
“He’s really still developing his game and he’s obviously gotten stronger in the last year,” Patton said. “Because he’s been playing some higher level tournaments and matches, he’s much more tournament tough. His tennis IQ has really increased in the last year and a half. He should be a formidable foe for anybody.”
Jacksonville’s Mitchell Steadman, last year’s No. 1 seed after he won the tournament title in 2016, is the second seed behind Rogers. Austin Kisch, another former Big Al’s champion out of Yreka, is seeded third.
“All of them have won the tournament before,” Patton said. “They’ve all played high school tennis, Rox is going to be playing in college come the fall and they’re all experienced and they’re competitive.”
The women’s open singles division draw is five players this year, with Isabelle Bahr is the No. 1 and only seed since the field is so small.
Ashland High graduate Ashley Knecht — who will be a senior at Portland State in the fall — is also in the field.
“It’s a small draw, but it’s a strong draw,” Patton said of the women’s open division.
The tournament field being at the 170-player mark is just slightly higher than where it was a year ago, according to Patton. In 2016, the tournament had a total of 171 participants.
A lot of the tournament field is of a younger age, with Patton quite pleased that the a newer generation has started to really make its presence known at the Big Al’s.
“It’s always nice because we need a resurgence of young players,” Patton said. “Kids these days, they have so many different activities, so what we want to do is keep regenerating new players. At the open level, a lot of those players are younger players than older players, so it’s nice when we have a good group because those are usually most of the younger players coming up.”
After spending much of her day Tuesday trying to put together the final tournament bracket and making sure the field is set for opening day on Friday, Patton and her team of assistants are just ready for there to be some tennis.
“We’ve got to finish up all the draws, which is a tedious process, and then it’s making sure we get the trophies on time, our shirts on time and everything set,” Patton said. “(Friday morning) is when the fun begins because it’s just a fun atmosphere, there’s a lot of excitement, there’s a lot of people coming to spectate and some really good tennis — which is always enjoyable to see.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.