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TENNIS

Winning Never Gets Old for Cheney

May 10, 1999|LISA DILLMAN

LA JOLLA — Sometimes, just for fun, 82-year-old Dodo Cheney drops down and plays with the youngsters . . . in the 70-and-over division.

"It's good to be licked once in a while," she says. "It's a leveler, that's what they call it."

Dorothy Bundy Cheney is talking, remembering and, really, bustling, around her bungalow, a miniature Tennis Hall of Fame, a few drop shots away from the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.

She is bustling despite an achy right knee, an ailment temporarily keeping her off the tennis court. The knee has slowed Cheney for a bit, but it hasn't stopped her.

Far from it.

On April 30, she won her 300th national title by defeating Marion Read of Milwaukee, 6-4, 6-2, in the USTA Women's 80 Hardcourt championship at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. Then Cheney made it 301 a day later by winning the doubles with partner Jean Harris.

Cheney's daughter, Christie Putnam, had family and friends and other players sign a commemorative framed picture to honor the moment. As Cheney giggled with a visitor at the comments, she recalled that her favorite national title was winning the 1976 USTA mother-daughter grass-court championship with Christie, saying: "I think it's the first time in my life I was so delighted to win. I threw my racket in the air and we hugged each other."

Around the framed picture, Read wrote: "Dodo, I feel like the pitcher who pitched [Mark] McGwire his 70th home run ball. Congratulations on your 300th gold ball."

Two friends made reference to her formidable skills in another arena: "Toss up: Better in tennis or cards?" "Only your poker playing surpasses your tennis."

Grandson Andrew Cheney, a student at UC Irvine, pulled out a line from "Swingers," an independent movie: "You're money, Dodo!"

Dodo peers at the comment and looks puzzled and asks what it means. She is assured it is the highest form of flattery, '90s style. More recognizable praise came from USTA president Judy Levering.

"Dodo was a great tennis player as a young woman," Levering said. "But what she has done these past 40 years shows that life really does begin at 40. She's my idol."

Her record is remarkable when you consider the closest competitor--male or female--is Gardnar Mulloy of Miami with 112 titles. Cheney won her first USTA championship with Pauline Betz in 1941, winning the U.S. National Indoors. All but three of Cheney's titles came after she turned 40. She has won 146 singles and 155 doubles championships, including 108 in the '90s.

"I could talk for two centuries about her," said Cheney's longtime doubles partner Corky Murdock, 79, of Los Angeles. "She a legend. I had to play against her most of my life.

"When I turned 65 my partner and I beat her in the national indoors [in 1985]. When we were at the net shaking hands she looked at me and said, " 'Corky, we've got to play together.' I've hung on to her ever since."

Cheney is delighted when her partners receive recognition. Initially, she was hesitant about discussing her recent accomplishments, worrying that readers might get tired of the same stories.

She graciously relented and put aside her gardening and puzzle to spend a few hours last week chatting about her achievements--how guile and a formidable drop shot make up for the loss of power--as well as her famous tennis family.

Cheney's legendary mother, May Sutton Bundy, became the first American to win a singles title at Wimbledon in 1905 and returned two years later to add another championship.

Her father, Thomas Bundy, won three U.S. doubles championships and played Davis Cup before he became a real estate mogul and founder of the Los Angeles Tennis Club. And her three aunts ruled Southern California tennis, trading titles among themselves and May, from 1899 through 1915, and were among the top players in the country.

Dodo was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country three times, and she reached the semifinals at Forest Hills and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. One of her most treasured victories came in 1938 at the Australian championships, now known as the Australian Open. She won the singles and lost in the doubles final.

Back then, she didn't take her tennis as seriously. Cheney laughingly recalled the time she was defaulted from a tournament because she was off fishing with some boys.

"We didn't train the way they do today," she said, recalling her trip to Australia. "I didn't have an entourage with me and trainer and a coach or somebody to carry my bags. I did go with three other tennis players. We had a wonderful time. I just had fun, fun, fun all the time.

"Oh gosh, of course I was surprised to win. I was on Cloud Nine. We had a marvelous time. We went there on a boat. We went through Fiji, the Hawaiian Islands. We had a marvelous time.

"We danced on board and played shuffleboard. We did everything, When we went across the equator, we had a fun party on board. I think it took a couple of weeks to get there."

She remains modest about victories, even those from decades ago.

"The best singular win I ever had, I defeated Alice Marble, who was then the national champion, at Forest Hills," Cheney said. "I think she was sick. It was a wonderful win for me, but I do think she had been sickly most of the summer."

Her mother, May, did not interfere in her tennis. Cheney recalled that she would "hide behind trees" during her matches. May passed away in 1975 at age 88 and played matches up until a few months before her death.

"I guess I take after my mother," she said. "Mother was playing in her 80s. In those days, they didn't have senior tournaments. Mother could have won quite a few gold balls."

Already, Cheney has won three national titles this year. And if you think there is any chance she plans on slowing down, well, just listen to the message on her telephone answering machine:

"Lob your message in please. And if it's not over my head, I'll return it with an overhead smash."

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