Some of them have been doing their thing for more than 40 years. At one time they ran all afternoon and then danced all night with men who carried gold cigarette cases and displayed monogrammed handkerchiefs. Those days are mere memories now, but anyone who stopped by the West Side Tennis Club last week was reminded of that bygone era. The ladies were playing tennis the way it was meant to be played—on grass, where footfalls are muffled and the balls and costumes are white. The ladies were at Forest Hills, where many of them had competed in the U.S. championships as amateurs, to play the 40-, 50-and 60-and-over age divisions of the National Senior Women's Grass Court Championships. They were playing for fun, a miniature gold tennis ball and sweet remembrances.
The women who travel the senior circuit exude an indomitable spirit. For them, the calendar isn't an enemy. Says Betty Pratt, who's co-ranked No. 1 in the 50s with Nancy Reed and was a seven-time competitor at Wimbledon, "This is the one place where you hear a woman say, 'Hooray, I'll be 60 next year!' " It's also where, as a player walks on court, a friend will call out, "If you got it, you've got to use it."
One of those who had it was Bunny Vosters of Greenville, Del., who's tall and blonde, with a carriage as erect as the Statue of Liberty's. As Vosters plowed through the early rounds in the 60s, she talked to anyone who asked about the old days. "I loved those times," she recalled. "The circuit was grand, up and down the Eastern seacoast, at very lovely clubs. On grass, of course. And there were always parties and entertainment. William du Pont was courting my friend, Margaret Osborne. He would pop up from Wilmington and take us all to dinner at '21' or the Stork Club. Or he would have us to his estate for practice. There might be a male pro for instruction. Fabulous food. Anything we wanted. It was a very pleasant way of life."
Vosters, who has won 23 national mother-daughter titles, is a rookie in the 60s, a division that has been the preserve of Dodo Cheney of Santa Monica, Calif. (SI, Aug. 9; 1982). At 67, Cheney, who ranked among the Top 10 U.S. women 11 times from 1936 to 1955, has won more U.S. national titles—141—than anyone, man or woman, ever. She's a media favorite and refreshingly entertaining, from her outfits—homemade ruffled dress, pearl earrings, necklace and bracelet, and duckbill hat—to her balletic court movement, wily strokes and modest demeanor. "Ohhhh, I was lucky today," said Cheney after another rout.
Cheney, Pratt and Vosters represent one segment of seniors—former world-class players. There is, however, another group—late bloomers like retired schoolteacher Jean Corvino, the second seed in the 60s. In 1940, she qualified for the Olympics in four events (javelin, shotput, discus and high hurdles), but the Games weren't held because of World War II. Corvino, who's from Boca Raton, Fla., also was ranked nationally in badminton and—shades of Babe Didrikson—played semipro basketball and softball. She also played tennis at Miami of Ohio, but had little time for the game once she started working. "I taught drivers ed, which gave me ulcers, and by the time I finished teaching each day, got the car gassed up and got home, it was almost dark," she says. Corvino didn't play tennis seriously until she retired in 1974.
Despite their disparate backgrounds, all the women at Forest Hills had one thing in common: They smiled more or less constantly. 'All the bad eggs are long gone," said Phyllis Adler, who wore a gold necklace with NO. 1 LADY imprinted on the pendant. Adler is Cheney's doubles partner, and she joins in the post-match bridge games Dodo organizes. There also was a pretty hot locker room poker game for those who were brave enough, as well as field trips to Manhattan, where Reed fast-talked the box office manager for The Rink, a Broadway play, into selling her and her friends $40 tickets for $20. "Very few of us look old or walk old," said Pratt. "Sure we've got wrinkles, but underneath we're just as we always were."
This was a unique tournament. It began and ended on grass, but in between, because of rain, several rounds were played on clay and hard courts. In fact, Saturday's semifinals were held indoors at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow. Reed and Pratt both were beaten there. Reed fell to Jane Crofford of Nashville, and Pratt lost to Charlene Grafton of Pensacola, Fla. In one of the 60s semis, Adler faced Cheney, whom Adler had never beaten. Nonetheless, she said that she was looking forward to the match because of "my new topspin forehand." Another late arrival to tennis, Adler has a training regimen that rivals Martina Navratilova's. She works out on Nautilus machines three times a week, but, she says, "I'm not interested in big muscles." Cheney prevailed 6-4, 6-4, but veteran Dodo watchers found it significant that her dress, which normally remains as crisp as did her suitors' handkerchiefs in the '30s, was soaked with perspiration after the match. "I was getting tired out there," said Cheney.
In the other 60s semi, Vosters met unseeded Rhoda Thompson of Huntington, N.Y. The previous day, Thompson had upset Corvino 6-0, 6-0, a debacle Corvino explained in crisp and succinct terms: "I got my clock cleaned." But on Saturday, Vosters won 6-1, 6-0. Afterward, Thompson said, "She's just awesome." Thompson said that about five times. Then, wavering slightly, she walked over to a friend and asked, "What in God's name happened?"
Sunday came up bright and beautiful, and the three finals were played simultaneously on the grass. In the 40s, Barbara Mueller, the women's tennis coach at Ohio State, had too much power for Patricia Cody, and Crofford beat Grafton for the 50s crown. In the 60s, many observers predicted a historic match because this was the first time Cheney and Vosters had met. Cheney was giving away a lot of size, and an indeterminate number of years. When asked her age, Vosters would only say, "I'm old enough for the 60s, but not for the 65s."
With a wonderful backhand, a long elegant stroke that might have been the model for Evonne Goolagong's, Vosters made Cheney move more than she would have liked. On the final point of her 7-5, 6-4 victory, Vosters hit an ace that nipped the line. Cheney simply looked at the line judge, gave a why-couldn't-you-have-called-that-out shrug and went to the net to congratulate Vosters.
It was the first time Cheney ever had lost in the 60s, but no matter. There was another gold ball to be had this week in Wilmington at the Vostersless national 65 grass court championships.