By Joel Drucker
If anyone can be said to personify the notion of tennis as a sport for a lifetime, it’s Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney. It’s a story that covers three centuries, thousands of matches and a distinct competitive spirit that she’d contend is genetic.
Cheney is now 96 years old. With her balance compromised in recent years, she concedes “I need to take it easy” and rarely plays tennis. Her tournament days are over, but to say Cheney has squeezed her share of juice out of tennis is an understatement.
“My concentration was never the best,” says Cheney from her home in La Jolla, California – not too far from her primary tennis base, the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. “My mind wanders.” But the record contradicts. Cheney has won 394 USTA National titles, a staggering total that’s the major reason she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004.
If to its owner the name “Dodo” implied a scattered quality, to her opponents that was hardly the case. Though Cheney refers to herself as “mainly a backcourt player,” her ability to navigate inside the baseline – a place dubbed“Dodoland” – made her adroit at directing balls into all corners of the court, most notably off her superb forehand. Add to that an efficient spin serve and what Cheney calls “a darn good drop shot” and you have the ingredients of a superb competitor. Cheney’s peers – that is, any player born within 15 years of her – talk about rare victories over her with the pride ATP World Tour players describe beating Roger Federer. Says Cheney, “I guess you could say I had a good fighting spirit.”
Then again, tennis was simply the family business. Head back to the 1890's, to Pasadena, California. Imagine a 12-year-old girl named May Sutton, the youngest of seven children. The six older Suttons all play on the family court, but rarely with May, who is considered hardly good enough. Angry at being rejected, May shakes her fist and declares, “One day I’ll beat all of you.” In those days, though, that was a tall order. The Sutton family dominated Southern California tennis, to the point where the saying went, “It takes a Sutton to beat a Sutton.”
But May proved the most accomplished of them all. In 1905, at the age of 18, she boarded a boat to London and returned home as the first American – man or woman – to win the Wimbledon singles title. Two years later, a successful title defense.
In 1912, she married Thomas Bundy, who would win three US doubles titles between ’12-’14. Dorothy was born 1916. “I’ve always loved playing,” she says. “When I was a kid, I didn’t care if I won or lost. It was just so much fun, all the time. Only later did I start to really wanting to win more.”
Think again, though, before you regard Cheney as strictly a competitive late-bloomer. Ten times between 1937 and ’46 she was ranked in the US top ten. In ’38, following in the footsteps of her mother, she became the first American woman to win the Australian Championships. There were also runs to the semis at Wimbledon in ’46 and a quartet of final four appearances at the US Championships.
But it was at the age of 40 when Cheney began to soar. Year after year, playing various age divisions, she would snap up dozens of national singles and doubles titles. Even along the way came a few mother-daughter crowns with daughter Chris. The family tradition also continued with the superb feats of her son Brian, who lettered at the University of Arizona, played Forest Hills and Wimbledon and has himself earned dozens of age group titles – including father-son titles with his son, Andrew. “It’s hereditary,” says Cheney.
Whether dropping by the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club or sitting at home, Cheney continues to enjoy the game. Her latest fascination is Milos Raonic. “He’s my new heartthrob,” she says. “But there have been so many, so many players I’ve seen, so many wonderful people and players.”
Joel Drucker has been involved with Tennis Channel since it hit the airwaves in 2003, initially as co-producer of the interview show “Center Court.” Subsequently he has been involved in dozens of the network’s activities, including work as story editor at all the Grand Slams and the production of numerous TC events