Ashland's Vika O'Brien won the women's open championship at the annual Big Al's Tennis Tournament last year but also is not slated to compete. [MT FILE PHOTO]

Back in the swing

ASHLAND — Gail Patton has been playing and teaching tennis in the Rogue Valley for so long she knows just about everything there is to know about the sport, from the nuances of the two-handed backhand to the optimal string tension for a beginner who employs heavy topspin.

But when it comes to organizing a USTA tennis tournament, Patton, the former Southern Oregon University women’s tennis coach and current tennis pro at Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club, must wear several hats at once, and when she was asked Wednesday how things were going her answer said it all:

“I’ll tell you after Big Al’s is over,” she said. “Everything is a rush right now.”

And the rush will only pick up steam now that the tennis is about to begin.

The 42nd annual Big Al’s Tennis Tournament starts Friday at 18 courts throughout town, as 164 players — most from Southern Oregon and Northern California — converge upon Ashland in search of pottery trophies, USTA points, good competition and, in many cases, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival play (or two).

The three-day tournament this year will feature one of its largest men’s open singles tournaments in years, a women’s open singles tournament (it’s been scrapped in years past for lack of entries) and for the first time ever will be run by the Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club, for which Patton is one of two tennis pros.

The open singles championship matches are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Sunday at Hunter Park, which will serve as the tournament headquarters. There, posters of each of the 24 brackets will be updated as scores come in, and a food vendor is expected to set up shop.

The men’s open singles draw features 14 players, six of whom hail from Jackson or Josephine counties. The No. 1 seed is Jacksonville’s Mitchell Steadman, who lost to eventual champion Kylar Tosh of Medford in the semifinals last year.

Steadman has a first-round bye and will face either Tyler Skeete of Redding, California, or Akeem Williams of Medford in the quarterfinals at 4 p.m. Friday. Also Friday, second-seeded Austin Kische of Yreka, California, will face either Gabriel Kinder of Redding or Anthony Maravilla of Grants Pass in the quarterfinals Saturday morning, and third-seeded Rox Rogers of Talent will face Ethan Smith of Roseburg in the first round at 9 a.m. Friday.

“Out of the people who were in the tournament this year, (Steadman) made it farthest in last year’s tournament,” Patton said of the former South Medford High School player, explaining the top seed. “He’s young, he hits hard, with lots of energy.”

Those characteristics also apply to Rogers, the Ashland High School senior-to-be who advanced to the Class 5A singles state championship match in the spring, losing to top-seeded senior Carter Quigley of Summit. Rogers played in last year’s Big Al’s men’s open singles tourney, too, falling to Kyle Pierson in the first round.

Patton says Rogers has improved dramatically in the last year, however, and counts the Grizzly as a dark horse.

“Last year (Rogers) didn’t do very well but he is a much better player now,” Patton said. “He’s a big kid and a big hitter. Rox is the youngest out of that group, but that threesome there (the top three seeds), they’re all fun players to watch.

“He’s bigger and stronger and smarter than what he was last year. We’ll see what happens.”

The women’s open singles draw includes six players. Only one player in the bunch, Kelsey Bartlett, hails from the Rogue Valley, while the others come from Redding, California, Lake Oswego and even Dallas, Texas.

Nine players signed up for the women’s open singles tourney last year, including eventual champion and AHS alum Vika O’Brien, but Patton said a youth movement has tournament organizers feeling optimistic about the future of Big Al’s.

“We’re excited,” she said. “The thing that we’re seeing is we’re getting a new group of kids out of high school, out of college who are still playing competitive tennis, so that’s really nice. And we’re hoping since it’s sanctioned (by the USTA) now, we’ll keep gaining on those ends.”

Two former AHS standouts and longtime doubles partners Evan Schleining and Ari Zaslow are teaming up again for the men’s open doubles bracket — it’s five teams strong — and are seeded No. 1. The second-seeded team is Rox and Cory Rogers. Rox Rogers and Schleining teamed up to win the men’s open doubles tourney last year.

Since only three teams signed up for the women’s open doubles bracket, it will be a round robin affair. Same goes for the mixed open doubles bracket.

The 164 players is down slightly from last year’s 171 but continues an upward trend for the tournament since it bottomed out at 149 participants in 2014 after a spike of 228 in 2011.

With the SOU courts out of commission — matches will be played at Hunter Park, Lithia Park, Helman Elementary, Ashland Hills Hotel and the club — Patton said 164 is pretty close to maximum capacity.

“For the number of courts we have right now available, that’s good,” she said. “Otherwise we’re really crunching things and matches start getting later and later. We definitely had more when we had more courts. We’re pleased with the turnout this year. We never turn anybody away unless they call us after the draws have been made, which I had a few people do.”

Traditionally, Big Al’s has been run by Supporters of Tennis for Ashland Youth (STAY), a local non-profit. But, a group of local volunteers took over the event a few years ago and this year, just months after the Ashland Tennis & Fitness Club was purchased by local attorney Lexi Packer, the club assumed control.

Patton says she’s as ready as she can be.

“Most everything we need to do is done and now it’s just the little finishing touches,” she said.

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