A Dodo In Name Only

Aug. 09, 1982
Aug. 09, 1982

Table of Contents
Aug. 9, 1982

Tom Glassic
Dodo Cheney
Horse Racing
Special Report
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Dodo In Name Only

Nobody has won anywhere near as many U.S. national tennis titles as Dodo Cheney, one canny old bird on the court and at the poker table

After a thump against a curb, a near miss of a towering palm and a 360 in mid-block, the Pontiac Grand Prix came to a screeching halt in front of a Neighbor-savor food store in La Jolla. The little old lady from Santa Monica climbed down off her pillow and out from behind the steering wheel.

This is an article from the Aug. 9, 1982 issue Original Layout

"Like my hood ornament?" she asked her pals as they piled out of the car. She pointed to a figure of a curvaceous woman holding a tennis racket. "Did it myself. Yanked it off one of my trophies. Then I just screwed it on the hood. Adds a little class, don't you think?"

The little old lady from Santa Monica began waving her arms, orchestrating her troops-left, right, full steam ahead. "Now everybody gets two minutes to go through the store and pick out munchies," she said. "We need sustenance for the poker game."

With that, everyone scattered, returning with potato chips, corn curls, cheese puffs, dips, soda, cheese and crackers. "Let's get two six-packs," she said, watching the mound at the cash register grow. "Oh, oh. It says you've got to show an ID to buy beer." She started rummaging through her purse.

"Will my driver's license do?"

"Ma'am, you look old enough to me," said the teen-age cashier with a giggle. The register rang out the damage: $27.45.

"Thank goodness," she said. "Jeepers, the only proof of age I have is gray hair and varicose veins."

Meet Dodo Cheney, mother of three, grandmother of seven, youngest daughter in the First Family of American tennis, neighborhood zucchini queen, abalone fisherman, card shark, creator of secret arthritis remedies and winner of more U.S. national tennis titles—114—than anyone who has ever played the game. Whoa. Run that past again. Dodo Cheney? More national championships than anyone? What about Bill Tilden? Nope. He only had 31. Billie Jean King? She's won 30. How about Chris Evert Lloyd? Just 18. Dodo's nearest pursuer is 68-year-old Gardnar Mulloy, and he's won a mere 55.

So why haven't you heard of her? Well, Dodo never won a title at Wimbledon or Forest Hills—though both her parents did. And while Evert Lloyd et al. were typically winning national championships by the time they were 11, Dodo didn't really get started until she was 40, with the U.S. 40-and-over Women's Hard Court singles in 1957. She would win that tournament—in the same age division—every year until she was 53. Now that Dodo has turned 65, she finally has consented to play with people closer to her own age. For the record, her U.S. titles, which have come on all surfaces, break down this way: clay court singles, indoor doubles, hard court doubles, 35-and-over doubles (commonly referred to as 35 doubles, the same being true of other senior age categories), 45 doubles, mother-daughter—one each; 40 singles—17; 40 doubles—14; 50 singles—five; 50 doubles—eight; 55 singles—13; 55 doubles—nine; 60 singles—16; 60 doubles—10; 65 singles—five; 65 doubles—two; senior mixed doubles—nine. Dodo won her most recent national championships just last week, the 65 grass court singles and doubles in Wilmington, Del. All this makes her a one-woman dynasty, the likes of which the game had never before known.

On the court—and at the poker table—Dodo wraps herself in lace, pleated pastels, puffy caps, pearls, beads, bangles and charm bracelets. "The girls today don't look like girls when they're on the court. They look like men," says Dodo, who cooks up a new outfit for several of the dozen or so tournaments she plays each year. "The players look too tough. For me, there's never too much perfume or lace." But don't let her looks fool you. Dodo is a canny old bird. She relies primarily on a looping Western forehand and chases down just about everything. Then, when her opponent is convinced she has settled in on the baseline, Dodo sneaks up to the net and puts her away with dinks and drops.

Dodo was doing precisely that during a first-round match at the national 60-and-over hard court championships at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club in May. "Woo," she cried after a perfect return of an overhead smash, "did I really get that?" A few games later, her opponent drilled a forehand that landed just inside the sideline. "I got it," Dodo yelled as she raced for the shot, her charm bracelets madly jangling, her peach skirt billowing. Without breaking stride, she caught the ball smack in the center of her oversized racket and whacked it back. But what's this? She kept right on running, pretending that she couldn't stop, and zoomed toward the net, narrowly missing the stanchion. Plop. She wound up in the stands, finally run aground by a big-bellied man in the front row. He put his arm around her. "We have to stop meeting like this," said Dodo, laughing.

"Nothing ever amazes me about my mother," says Dodo's daughter, Christie Putnam. "When I was young, every year our family went to La Jolla for a tournament. You know what our schedule used to be? We'd get down there in the late afternoon, and Mom would go out and check to see whether it was high or low tide. If it was high tide, we'd go fishing and have a picnic. Then the kids would go to bed and the adults would play poker until way past midnight. Mom would have us all up about five the next morning, when it was low tide. We'd go out and fish for lobster and abalone. Then we'd play matches all day. You don't think I've always wished I'd had that kind of energy?"

Dodo is in a race against time. Too many more bridge parties and poker games. Too many more homegrown zucchinis and cucumbers to give away. Too many more dresses to design, charms to collect and grandchildren to keep track of. Too many more hours of planting, climbing, hoeing, building, painting. Too many more titles to be won.

"A woman asked me the other day where she could find Dodo," says Carol Schneider, national women's senior circuits chairman, as she watched Dodo flit around on and off the court in La Jolla. "And I said, 'When does she play? Three o'clock? Well, look for her at 2:59.' Dodo just has so much going on. I've never seen her watch a tennis match."

After the second round in La Jolla, Dodo and the gang, some locals and a group of fellow competitors, got together to play cards. "What have I gotten myself into?" said Arthur Mace Gwyer, 66, as he watched Dodo scoop up bunches of chips from the middle of the dining room table and stack them in front of her. "Listen, I haven't played poker since World War II. I've only got $45 in cash, but I do have checks. And they are good. After that, I have credit cards."

"Relax, Mace," Dodo said, taking a sip of her milk on the rocks. She says she drinks milk because of an ulcer, but she also likes to keep her mind clear for the task at hand.

"All I did was ask you to go dancing," Gwyer said.

"Relax, Mace," Dodo said. "We'll go over to The Marine Room later and check out the action."

Relax, Mace, it's only money. White chips cost a nickel. Red ones are worth a dime. Blue chips, a quarter.

"We're now playing screw your neighbor," the dealer said, shuffling a fresh deck.

"You have two cards?" Dodo asked.

"I'm chesting them," said Helen Perez, who ranked among the nation's first 10 women in the early 1950s and now is second in the 50-and-over division.

"Keep your cards on the table, girl," said Dodo.

"I like those big cards," said Vilma Gordon, who is ranked 13th in the U.S. in the 50s. "Then I don't have to wear my glasses."

"I'm gonna raise you a dime," the dealer said. "There are all rich people here."

Dodo's blue eyes were clear and ice cold. She wasn't about to give away any secrets. She peered to her right. Hmm. Helen is smirking, Dodo thought. Dodo glanced to her left. Vilma looks shell-shocked.

"O.K.," the dealer announced, "here we go."

Up came the cards around the table: ace of hearts, queen of diamonds, 10 of diamonds, queen of diamonds....

"Wait. Something's wrong with this deck," said Dodo, ripping the cards from the dealer's hands.

"All I did was look for a fresh deck," said Helen, innocently holding up a shoe box bursting with at least 30 decks of cards.

"This is a pinochle deck," Dodo said, quite irritated.

"Uh, you never know what'll happen in La Jolla," the guilty party said.

Well, pour some more drinks. Here, have some more peanuts. Grab another deck of cards. The night's still young.

"Dodo used to play this tournament in December," says Schneider. "She'd stay up most of the night playing poker, and she'd win at poker and win her matches. Then, one time a couple of years ago, she lost a match. I said, 'Dodo, you can't stay up so late anymore.' She just smiled."

Dodo was born Dorothy May Bundy on Sept. 1, 1916 in Santa Monica. Her father, Thomas C. Bundy, won three U.S. doubles championships (1912-14) and was on two Davis Cup teams (1911 and 1914). A real estate mogul, he developed L.A.'s Miracle Mile. He also founded and built the Los Angeles Tennis Club, one of the oldest and most famous bastions of the game in the country.

Her mother was May Sutton, the driven, gutsy pioneer of women's sports in the U.S. The British used to call May "the Pasadena washerwoman," because she was the first female tennis player to push her blouse sleeves up to her elbows. She also wore fewer petticoats than other players because she knew women needed more freedom to move about the court. May won the U.S. women's singles and doubles in 1904, and a year later, at age 17, became the first American to win a singles title at Wimbledon. She won Wimbledon again in 1907, and 14 years later, at 33, was ranked fourth in the U.S. and made the semis at Forest Hills, after having four children.

To know May is to know Dodo. "Mrs. Bundy always walked onto the court looking as if she was in her bedroom," says Pat Henry Yeomans, a childhood friend of Dodo's. "May loved ruffles, lace, feathers and big hats. She was the kind of woman who insisted upon having tea and crumpets before she would begin the third set of any match."

"I remember watching May Sutton and Dodo play a mother-daughter event at a tournament in La Jolla when May was 81," says Ralph Trembley, who was a tournament official. "And her mother would scream at the top of her lungs, 'Dodo, get your ass up to the net.' "

Bill Bundy, Dodo's younger brother, also remembers that tournament. "Mother and Dodo got to the finals," he says. "Mother played net because she still had an extremely quick eye. Well, the net was a little long and part of it was lying flat on the court. Mother poached, and she caught her foot in the net. She fell, and you could hear the crowd cringe. She was bleeding like a stuck pig. We put wet towels on her elbows, arms and knees. Dodo said, 'Mother, we'll default.' And she said, 'We most certainly will not. I've never defaulted in my life.' They didn't win, and Mother couldn't walk the next day, but by God, she didn't default."

Three of May's sisters also were among the best women players in the country. Ethel Sutton Bruce won the Southern California women's championship four times (1906, 1911-13), and Florence Sutton won the title in 1907 and 1914. Violet Sutton Doeg was Southern California champion in 1899, 1904 and 1905. (Her son, John Hope Doeg, won Forest Hills in 1930.) Together, May and her sisters won the Southern California women's title every year from 1899 through 1915.

Dodo, who began playing tennis at age 8, learned the basics from Florence. May would have nothing to do with her daughter's tennis career, though by watching her mother, Dodo picked up May's Western forehand—the stroke she made famous—her keen court sense and, most important, her determination.

After a solid but unsensational junior career, Dodo made the Wight-man Cup team at age 20 and reached the semifinals at Forest Hills. The next year, 1938, she won the Australian championships. In 1941 Dodo enrolled at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., where she and Pauline Betz, who later would win Forest Hills four times, headed what may well be the greatest women's college tennis team of all time. That year Dodo won her first national title, the U.S. Women's Indoor doubles, with Betz. In 1944 Dodo won the singles at the U.S. Clay Courts. From 1936 through 1946 she ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. every year but 1942, climbing as high as No. 3 three times.

Despite her success, Dodo knew she would never be the player May was. Still, she wanted nothing more than to please her mother and carry on the Sutton tradition in the sport. If she wasn't good enough to win major championships, Dodo decided, she would make her mark another way: She would win as many U.S. age-group titles as she could. But first she wanted to settle down and have a family. In 1946 Dodo married Art Cheney, a polo player and pilot for Western Airlines. They had three children, Brian, 34, a former captain of the Arizona tennis team and player/ coach of the Phoenix Racquets of World Team Tennis and now a teaching pro in Phoenix; Christie, 30, in her day a high-ranked junior player in Southern California; and May, 33, who never played much tennis and is now a medical illustrator. Dodo limited her tennis to mixed-cocktail doubles and local tournaments. Also, for 15 years she ran a municipal tennis program for hundreds of kids in Santa Monica that has produced some of the best junior players in the country.

In the late '40s and early '50s national age-group tournaments for adults were getting popular. "And women were finally realizing it was O.K. to admit their age," says Dodo. So she grabbed her free Western Airlines pass and set off on the tournament trail. The titles quickly accumulated. Since winning the 40 hard courts in 1957 she has averaged four U.S. titles a year. In 1981 she won 13. The women against whom she had competed when she was younger hadn't kept themselves in as good shape as Dodo had. Nowadays Dodo plays the 50 and 55 doubles and 55, 60 and, occasionally, 65 singles. She doesn't play the 65s often because, as Christie says, "Mom likes to win, but she also likes to know she had to work for the win." Adds Schneider, "Because of Dodo, we've added 70 singles and doubles. But she won't play them. She wouldn't get enough competition."

Which of all the titles means the most to Dodo? "That would be the mother-daughter grass courts in 1976, with Christie," she says. "We had a great time. When I made a stinky shot, she'd say, 'That's O.K., Mom.' My mother never would have been that easy on me."

Dodo's physical condition should enable her to keep piling up national titles for a long time. She has only minor arthritic pain in her fingers, but she keeps it under control with a secret homemade remedy. Her worst enemies are nasty calluses that appear on her right hand after marathon gardening sessions. Her eyesight is good—she doesn't need glasses to play—she moves well and her reflexes are sharp. Her serve and backhand, the weakest parts of her game when she was young, are now stronger than those of most of her opponents. Her concentration has actually improved with age. Her energy level is at an alltime high. She is rugged and resilient.

Yet beyond all this, something else has kept Dodo puddle-jumping across the U.S.: the last two years, tennis has been a release for her, a way to forget that time doesn't stand still for everyone. "In 1980 my dad had a massive stroke," says Christie. "He was completely immobilized and couldn't talk. We were told he had two weeks to two months to live. My mother made an immediate decision to care for him herself. She felt that a nursing home wasn't what he wanted. He loved their house up in the canyon.

"Well, he ended up living two years. Every two hours, for two years, my mother turned him. She chopped up his favorite foods for every meal because she thought he'd get bored with his formula. When she went to tournaments, friends stayed with him. She never complained. She always thought he had a chance to get better. Think of the devotion there. It wasn't until the last month that he got bedsores."

At 6:30 on a Sunday morning last May, just as she was getting dressed for the finals of the 60 singles and doubles at the National Hard Courts, Dodo got a phone call at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. It was a friend calling to tell her that her husband had died during the night. "Mother and a friend who had recently lost her husband took a long walk on the beach to sort things out," says Brian. "Mother then told the tournament committee something had happened at home and that she had to leave. She said she'd play the doubles because her opponents had traveled so far but she wouldn't play the singles. After she won the doubles, though, she felt great. And she thought, 'Why not?' So she played the singles and won that, too."

Titles No. 110 and 111.

"His death didn't come as a surprise," says Dodo. "Still, you're never quite ready for it when it finally happens. It was just as well that I played in the finals. I would've been a basket case otherwise. It was good therapy. By the time I got home I was in much better shape.

"But I don't know if you should mention that I played two matches after finding out my husband died. I don't know if people will realize why I had to play, why I had to be in La Jolla, why I had to be around tennis. I think too many people will wonder why I didn't go home."

PHOTOBRIAN LANKERPHOTOBRIAN LANKERDuring tournaments Dodo and her cronies often keep anteing up until the wee hours.PHOTOBRIAN LANKERThe First Family: Dodo, daughter May (left), son Brian, his wife Anne and grandchildren.PHOTOBRIAN LANKERMom won Wimbledon in 1905 and 1907...FIVE PHOTOSBRIAN LANKERWinning 114 national championships is only one of the 65-year-old Cheney's activities. She also keeps her house and grounds in Santa Monica sprucy, grows her own vegetables, fishes and windsurfs. Oh yes, she designs and makes her tennis dresses as well.PHOTOBRIAN LANKER...and her daughter shows no signs of letting up.