The Manhattan

In the era of big paychecks, beach volleyball’s oldest living tournament hasn’t lost its magic.

Robi Hutas
A huge, but typical, crowd was on hand for the 1972 Manhattan.

It’s 7:30 p.m. at Fat Face Fenners in Hermosa Beach. Looking across the table from behind his Santa Claus beard, Robi Hutas takes a tug on his ice water and begins spinning yarns about the good old days at the Manhattan Open, the tournament he has seen for more than 20 years through the lens of his camera.

“Everybody in the world came to the Manhattan Open,” he says in his thick Hungarian accent. “I’m telling you, even if you broke your leg, you came to the Manhattan Open.”

The fire in his eyes, the smile on his face tell you everything about the enthusiasm the beach towns of Southern California have for this tournament. To find the history of the World Series or the Super Bowl you go to the library, or the video store, anywhere. To find the history of the Manhattan Open, you go have a cheeseburger with a local like Robi Hutas. “I personally always thought that the rivalry and the ferocity and the utmost of really beat-the-crap-out-of-the-opponent really came out in the Manhattan Open,” Hutas says. “It really did.”

Hutas, 57, photographed his first Manhattan in 1972, 12 years after the tournament’s debut back in 1960. In the early days, beach volleyball was nothing more than a small community of people who spent summers playing tournaments from San Diego to Santa Cruz. There was no money – for players or photographers. Hutas earned most of his living snapping portraits of the Hell’s Angels for 20 bucks a pop.

Today, of course, the sport is a lot different. It’s played for big purses, in places like Belmar, N.J., in front of television audiences. But through all the changes, one tournament still defines the essence of what the sport was all about back in the early days.

The Manhattan Open.

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Even on weekday mornings, when there aren’t many games being played, walking between the net posts at Manhattan Beach has a certain magic to it. You can almost imagine what it must have been like at those tournaments 15 or 20 years ago. Arriving the night before, burying your keg in the sand, sleeping at courtside. Waking up and spending the next two days sipping beer and watching volleyball. Seeing the headlights from the strand come on to push the darkness away on Sunday night so the players could finish the final. And then heading up the street to La Paz (now Sunsets) to drink more beer, throw darts and get loud. It would be hard to design a more perfect setting for a beach volleyball tournament.

“It was really ahead of its time,” says five-time winner Mike Dodd, who grew up in Manhattan Beach. “Just the way the strand was perpendicular to the pier. It created a true arena-type atmosphere. It was really kind of a vision of what the future of the sport could be.”

If it was good for the fans, Manhattan was even better for the players. And a big reason for that is Charlie Saikley, the tournament director since 1965. Saikley has always catered to the players, making sure they have nothing more to worry about than their opponents. For years, Saikley and his staff would drag out huge hoses from the Manhattan Beach Fire Department and spend five eight-hour days watering the sand so there would be a hard pack to jump off of and a cool surface to land on. He finally gave that up when someone told him that nobody appreciated it, but he suspects there might have been more to it than that.

“I think what they were saying was, ‘You’re the only one doing it, and you’re making us look bad,’” he says.

If it wasn’t for Saikley, the Manhattan Open might not even be around today. Back in 1967, in a final pitting Ron Von Hagen and Ron Lang vs. Bob Vogelsang and Bill Leeka, fans threw beer bottles on the court to protest a questionable call. Monday morning, when Saikley went to work, he had to answer to his boss at the Manhattan Beach Rec Department. Seems City Hall got calls of complaint from people who didn’t appreciate flying beer bottles at their beach. The big boss told Saikley that he was going to do away with the tournament. It took awhile, but things finally cooled down and Saikley talked him out of it.

More than anything, Saikley has always had a soft spot for anybody who wanted to play in the Manhattan Open. Even if they missed the sign-up deadline.

“Charlie used to say to you, ‘Hey you guys, come on. It’s the last day … Okay, I’ll squeeze you in,’” says Hutas, who played a few times himself. “He could always squeeze people in. Even after he set up the whole program.”

*****

Squeezing people in at the last minute is a thing of the past, but Manhattan remains the only stop on the 25-tournament tour where anybody can sign up. All you need it $20 and quick feet. There is a 32-team division that is open to the general public, picked on a first-come, first-serve basis. It usually gets filled in a day or two.

Keeping the open format hasn’t been easy for Saikley in recent years. The way he looks at it, the more teams the better. The Manhattan draw has been as big as 128 teams. But the AVP would prefer to keep it to a more standard format of, say, 32 teams.

It’s a tough call for the players on the tour now who were around in the early days. On one hand, they remember the thrill of playing as teenagers, dreaming about the day they might be in the headlights. But then again, should hacks be allowed to play professionals who are the best in the world at what they do?

“I think it’s neat, but as the sport grows and becomes more professional . . .” says Dodd, pausing. “I don’t think I should be allowed to go play McEnroe or go hit golf balls with Fred Couples. I think that’s something to be earned through hard work.”

Says Karch Kiraly, “I have mixed feelings on that, too. Should I be able to go enter Wimbledon and get hammered by Boris Becker in the first round? I’m not sure I should be out there wasting his time, as much as it would be a thrill for me to get to play him.

“So that’s one side of it. But the other side is that I do like to hang on to tradition and one of the traditions at all of the tournaments was that they would try to allow as many teams to enter as possible.”

The compromise is 64 teams, 48 pros and 16 from the 32-team open field. Which means that you, me, or anybody else can go sign up at the end of June. Win one match against another pair of weekenders, and the Manhattan Beach Open will pay your AVP membership fees so you can advance to the main draw. Then you might play Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos or Karch and Kent Steffes.

Stranger things have happened.

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Stanford’s Canyon Ceman and former UCLA player Dave Swatik, relative kids compared to many of the players on the tour, lived the dream last summer. Growing up a mile from the pier, Ceman soaked up plenty of Manhattan’s aura over the years.

First round last year, Ceman-Swatik sent veterans Jon Stevenson and Wes Welch to the losers’ bracket. Ceman considered that a big achievement since he’d always looked up to Stevenson, who has won 23 tournaments in his career. Next up was Matt Sonnichsen and Rudy Dvorak. Say hello to Stevenson and Welch in the losers’ bracket for us, will you guys? Next.

Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes.

Now, Ceman and Swatik are good players. Young, but good. But it’s hard to prepare for beach volleyball’s most perfect team by playing pickup games with your friends during summer vacation.

“I felt like even if I lost 15-0 I wouldn’t have any explaining to do,” said Ceman from his dorm room at Stanford. “They were the best team in the world, and we were just a team that hadn’t played in a pro tournament.”

But a short time later, with a minute and a half remaining on the rally clock, Team Nobody was tied 9-9 with Team Champion. And the crowd was loving every minute of it.

“Everybody, bar none, was on our side,” Ceman says. “Except for probably their parents.”

Steffes and Kiraly got rolling after that, finished them off 15-9 and went on to win the tournament. But when you’re just starting out, playing tough against a tough team is a good inspiration to come back and play a little better the next year. And if you keep coming back, maybe one day you’ll be picking through the common teams on the way to championship.

It happens. Nearly 20 years ago, a tall, skinny high school kid was playing in the Manhattan Open with his older brother Ted. They advanced to the round before the quarterfinals and then ran into the top seeds, Bob Jackson and Fred Zuelich. After taking a lead and holding it until the score was 14-11, Jackson threw a ball that should have ended the game. But there was no call. Zuelich and Jackson came back to win the match and later won the tournament.

The kid never forgot that loss.

His name was Mike Dodd.

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The tournament only comes around once a year, but volleyball is alive and kicking year round in Manhattan Beach. Saikley teaches adult beach volleyball classes Monday through Friday night during the beach season. There are 60 on the waiting list.

You’ve heard of the winning tradition at Mira Costa High School? It isn’t by accident. The Manhattan Beach rec department started teaching most of those kids the fundamentals when they were eight years old.

“I teach at El Segundo High School,” Saikley said. “We don’t have boys’ volleyball, but we have girls’ volleyball. Over there, they’re still teaching them how to bump the ball. Ninth grade level. Over here, they’re playing serious strategic volleyball.”

Beach volleyball is to Manhattan what ice hockey is to Canada. You play it. That’s all there is to it. And you’d better get really good before you talk too much trash to your friends.

“Everyone would say, ‘Hey, you know what? You’ve won some opens. You’re good. You’re this, you’re that.’ But you’re nothing until you’ve won the Manhattan Open,” Dodd says. “And that has been kind of common knowledge for all young people coming up the ranks.”

Tim Hovland remembers riding his bike down to the tournament when he was 12 years old. “Right there I said, ‘I’m going to win this thing,’” he said.

He did. Five times, all with Dodd. In doing so, he became part of the tournament’s rich heritage. The heritage of Mike O’Hara and Mike Bright, who won the first five Manhattans. Of Gene Selznick, the dominant player of the 1950s, who won in 1965 at age 35. Of Von Hagen, who won it five ties, once also at age 35. Of Lang, a three-time winner, who won for the last time with a partner who was winning his first pro tournament, a grinning, blond kid named Randy Stoklos. Of Sinjin, a four-time winner, and Karch, another five-timer.

Over the years, the history has been passed down from one great generation of beach volleyball players to another. To most players, it is still the ultimate title, even though its $100,000 purse is worth significantly less than the three Cuervos ($200,000) or the U.S. Championship at Hermosa Beach ($250,000).

“It is not a money tournament, and that is probably best,” Jim Menges, five-time winner, says. “What dollar amount could be more valuable?”

To some, the attraction of big money has knocked Manhattan down a notch or two on the priority list. But everybody, from the top of the tour to the bottom, is aware that a truly great career is not complete without a Manhattan title.

“If you had to win just one,” Karch says, “I think most guys would pick Manhattan.”

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Coming up in a few weeks, on Fourth of July weekend, the Manhattan Beach Open will be played for the 34th time. The big story this year will be Karch. If he wins, it will be his sixth Manhattan title. Nobody has ever done that.

Karch says he doesn’t take those kinds of things too seriously, though. “Because,” he says, “I know that younger guys are going to come and break those records.”

Maybe some kid from the far court, a kid playing alongside his best friend or his brother or his dad, a kid dreaming about becoming part of beach volleyball history.

Manhattan Winners
1960: Mike O’Hara/Mike Bright
1961: Mike O’Hara/Mike Bright
1962: Mike O’Hara/Mike Bright
1963: Mike O’Hara/Mike Bright
1964: Mike O’Hara/Mike Bright
1965: Gene Selznick/Ron Lang
1966: Ron Von Hagen/Ron Lang
1967: Ron Von Hagen/Ron Lang
1968: Larry Rundle/Henry Bergmann
1969: Ron Von Hagen/John Vallely
1970: Ron Von Hagen/Henry Bergmann
1971: Bob Clem/Larry Rundle
1972: Buzz Schwartz/Matt Gage
1973: Bob Jackson/Fred Zuelich
1974: Ron Von Hagen/Tom Chamales
1975: Jim Menges/Greg Lee
1976: Steve Obradovich/Chris Marlowe
1977: Jim Menges/Chris Marlowe
1978: Jim Menges/Greg Lee
1979: Jim Menges/Sinjin Smith
1980: Karch Kiraly/Sinjin Smith
1981: Randy Stoklos/Jim Menges
1982: Tim Hovland/Mike Dodd
1983: Tim Hovland/Mike Dodd
1984: Tim Hovland/Mike Dodd
1985: Tim Hovland/Mike Dodd
1986: Sinjin Smith/Randy Stoklos
1987: Tim Hovland/Mike Dodd
1988: Karch Kiraly/Ricci Luyties
1989: Sinjin Smith/Randy Stoklos
1990: Karch Kiraly/Brent Frohoff
1991: Karch Kiraly/Kent Steffes
1992: Karch Kiraly/Kent Steffes

Originally published in August 1993

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