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Dodo Cheney: An enduring champion of greatness and grace
The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., is the ultimate destination for the greatest of this sport. To be enshrined here is the definitive statement of your importance and impact on the game. Every name here represents an important pillar in tennis’ strong structure; each inductee has forged a lasting legacy in the game. They are champions, all.
So many of these names are household names; iconic figures of global renown. But there are others—no less significant in the storied history of this great sport—who are lesser known, unheralded heroes whose important achievements too often fall just this side of the spotlight. As we celebrate Women’s History Month throughout March, USTA.com’s Steve Flink—himself a Hall of Famer—takes a closer look at five of those women who, although they may be lesser known are most certainly no less important in crafting the remarkable herstory of this game. Here, he looks at Dodo Cheney (Class of 2004), whose 394 USTA national titles is a record that should stand for all time.
Make no mistake about it—she was not a household name, not cut out to live in that lofty land alongside the iconic figures in tennis history, and not a transformational performer who changed the role of women in sports.
Be that as it may, this much is certain: the late Dodo Bundy Cheney must be regarded as the most enduring woman champion tennis has ever had.
She would tell Bud Collins late in her life, “At first I just loved to play, but the more I played the more I loved to win.”
This unsurpassed individual grew up with the game, which enveloped her from the beginning. Her mother was May Sutton Bundy, the U.S. Champion of 1904 and Wimbledon Champion in 1905 and 1907. Her father was Tom Bundy, a three-time U.S. Doubles champion (1912-14) with Maurice McLoughlin. Her son, Brian Cheney, emerged as a formidable college player who later established himself as a leading senior player, becoming the top ranked player in the U.S. 65-and-over division among other impressive accomplishments.
A little dynamo from the beginning, Dodo took up the game early during her California upbringing, establishing herself in 1936 at the age of 20 as the No. 8 ranked player in the U.S. The following year, she ascended to No. 3 in the country. In 1938, Dodo made history of a high order, becoming the first American woman ever to win the Australian Championships, joining countryman Don Budge in the winner’s circle “Down Under”. Budge, of course, went on to sweep the remaining three majors for the first Grand Slam in the history of the sport.
In 1955, when she was 39, Cheney spent her eleventh and last year as a member of the American Top Ten. During her prime years in women’s tennis, Cheney also secured the No. 6 world ranking. She was frequently a fixture in the latter stages of major tournaments. At her native U.S. Championships she reached the semifinals four times between 1937 and 1944. She first played in her country’s Grand Slam tournament in 1936 and made her last appearance 23 years later.
In 1946, she made it to the penultimate round of both the French Championships and Wimbledon. But she was destined to achieve higher honors in senior tennis. Much higher honors. Honors that would keep accruing for almost the rest of her lifetime. There has been nothing even resembling Cheney’s prolific run of successes in the history of American tennis in senior women’s competition. Her limitless zest for the game kept Cheney out there competing in senior events across more than six decades, from the latter stages of her thirties into her nineties.
Cheney’s voluminous exploits were so astounding that Dodo was inducted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004 when she was 87. That was the 50th anniversary year for the Hall of Fame, and Cheney was joined in her class by Steffi Graf and Stefan Edberg. Yet neither the German superstar nor the stylish Swede upstaged the gregarious Dodo under the summertime skyline in Newport, R.I. In many ways, she stole the show.
Her presenter that balmy day was one of her biggest boosters, none other than John McEnroe. McEnroe had been inducted five years earlier, and even then he had been advocating for Cheney taking her place one day at the shrine. Now that day had come and McEnroe was relishing it.
He said, “Tennis has been good to me and certainly has given me a lot, but this is an unexpected pleasure to be able to induct someone who I suggested five years ago at this very podium deserved to be in the Hall of Fame: Dodo Cheney.”
McEnroe lauded Dodo for her many achievements, but then got to the essence of why Cheney did indeed to belong as a Hall of Famer. He said, “The real reason Dodo Cheney belongs is that she epitomizes all that is good in our sport. She’s fit. Very fit. She’s mentally tough. She’s competitive. I’ll tell you how competitive she is. She saw me play earlier today in doubles and has demanded that we play a match. So Dodo and I will be on the practice court after the induction ceremony. Most importantly Dodo Cheney loves to play tennis, just loves this great sport.”
“This is so special for me,” said an emotional Dodo. “I’m almost in tears, honestly. It’s so great. A lot of people have said, ‘But, Dodo, do you really deserve this honor? You’ve worked hard all your life.’ And my reply to them has been, ‘Work? I haven’t worked. I’ve had nothing but fun, fun, fun, fun, fun for all my life.’ Everything wonderful that’s happened to me has been because of tennis, so I have a lot to be grateful [for] the game. You’d think at the age of 87 I’d be tired of playing and competing, but I’m not. I still enjoy it. I love it.”
Cheney had more to say concerning her deep affection for the sport as she spoke at the Hall of Fame. Over the decades, she amassed a record number of “gold balls”—the reward given to those who capture USTA national titles. She ended up with an astounding 394 of those prizes, taking the last of those coveted titles—the National Senior Women’s 90-and-over Hard Court Championships— when she was 95, less than three years before she died at 98.
As Cheney explained in Newport, “When you win a national championship they give you that a tiny little gold ball, gold plated. And at my age it’s rewarding to to have the record number of gold balls. Records are made to be broken, and you all know that. But at this time I want to publicly thank all of my partners. Out of the 347 gold balls that I have won [so far], practically half of them have been because of my doubles partners.”
She mentioned her “first partner” Pauline Betz, another Hall of Famer from the U.S., who won five major titles. But Cheney soon saluted the person she felt was her standout partner among a multitude of estimable men and women with whom she had shared a court. She said, “I want to tell you about my best partner, my faithful partner, and the finest player I ever played with. And that was in the U.S National mixed doubles tournament at Longwood. We didn’t win a gold ball but we got to the finals. His name is Jack Kramer. We didn’t win the finals because we played a pretty tough team of Alice Marble and Bobby Riggs.”
Talking about others rather than herself was a lifelong habit. Another was Cheney’s affability and acute sense of humor. Once she was racing after a ball one of her opponents had angled sharply off the court. Cheney was running at full force and could not put on the brakes, landing in the arms of a male spectator in the first row. Sharp witted as always, as quick with a quip as she was making a reflex volley, Cheney deadpanned, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
And yet, as much as she celebrated fun and laughter, Cheney would never have succeeded for so long without a strong will to win and an unwavering sense of how to get the most out of herself as a competitor. The proof of her commitment is found in the evidence. She won her first junior title at the age of 9, her first adult title at 11, and collected crowns in senior age divisions ranging from the 35-and-over all the way up to the 90-and-over category. Through it all, she was a master strategist, displaying uncanny tactical acuity and shot selection prowess. Cheney was not known for her power but rather for her ball control. She used every inch of the court, exploited her court sense to the hilt, and was never afraid to lose. She was a masterful doubles player who brought out the best in all of her partners.
Cheney would say self-deprecatingly, “I never practiced or trained. I just had a darned good time.” But the fact remained that she competed with such purposeful focus and intensity that she did need to look at practice the way other players did. She applied herself diligently, fought hard but fairly, and turned winning into a habit.
Unquestionably Cheney was a towering figure in tennis history, revered for her unparalleled durability, celebrated for embracing tennis endlessly and unabashedly, lauded for the dignified way she conducted herself at all times. Former USTA President Dave Haggerty once said accurately, “Dodo Cheney was one of the most prolific champions in the history of tennis and the personification of tennis truly being a lifetime sport. She played competitively into her nineties and her remarkable grace, singular class and competitive spirit made her one of the sport’s great ambassadors.”
Many other authorities have echoed Haggerty’s sentiments, but none have said it more eloquently. On the court in the field of competition, she was a charming assassin, going for the kill instinctively, pouncing whenever opportunities were presented to her, knowing uncannily precisely what it took to win. Off the court, she smiled readily, refused to brag about her triumphs, and celebrated life as an adventure to be relished every step of the way.
Tracy Austin— victorious at the US Open in 1979 and 1981, ranked No. 1 in the world, and a supreme competitor—was asked recently to offer her thoughts on the legacy of Dodo Bundy Cheney. Austin said, “Dodo was a legend. Her longevity and lifelong success was an inspiration to me and many players growing up in Southern California. I loved how she competed into her nineties and never lost her enthusiasm for the game. I doubt we will ever see anyone quite like her again.”
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