I recently received a letter from a popular tennis magazine inviting me to participate in a survey they were conducting to determine the 20 GREATEST PLAYERS OF THE 20TH CENTURY. Tennis writers, commentators and editors from around the world were invited to participate, with the magazine to feature the results in a special issue to celebrate the end of the millennium.
Enclosed with the invitation were two ballots, one for men and one for women. Each ballot contained roughly twenty names and next to each name was a short description of that players accomplishments. The names were all familiar and the accomplishments impressive.
Bill Tilden, winner of 138 out of 192 career tournaments immediately caught my eye, as did Rod Laver, the only two-time Grand Slam winner in tennis history. The lists continued with names like Roy Emerson, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills Moody, Billie Jean king, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf.
Each and every name on both ballots were true tennis legends and could certainly be considered "great," however, the survey wanted the "greatest," and that was altogether a different issue. Greatness is a term we throw around entirely too freely in the world of sports, so much so in fact that the term has become watered down. I decided that if I was going to do justice to this survey I would have to come up with a definition for "great" so I asked myself, "what is true greatness?"
I put the ballots aside, sat in a quiet corner of the house (which with two children is not easy to find) and
thought about what makes a player great, and then, what makes one the greatest of the great?
Is it a player who has produced the highest level of their sport although perhaps for only a very brief time?
If so, then certainly John McEnroe could be considered one of the greatest players of all time for he was a true artist on the court and displayed some of the greatest (oops, there's that word again) tennis we have ever seen, though over a relatively short period of time.
Or perhaps, should greatness be tied to longevity? The ability to perform at a high level for an extended period of time is certainly a "great" achievement and if one ascribes to this definition, Jimmy Connors, Ken Rosewall, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King top the list. All four were among the top players in the world for over twenty years and Connors and Rosewall are still competing today.
What it boils down to is which definition do you prefer? Level or longevity? I chose the longevity aspect for I feel that the ability to perform at a high level for an extended period of time displays not only an incredible degree of skill and dedication, but also a genuine, lifetime love of the sport. These are the qualities I admire most in an athlete and thus, the criteria I decided to use when choosing my list of "greatest players of the 20th century."
Once I had my guidelines down pat, I reached for the ballots and scanned the men's list first. My instructions were to check ten players, in no particular order. Connors and Rosewall immediately popped off the list and I checked their names. Bill Tilden was next, Roy Emerson and on I went until I reached ten.
Though some of the names I checked had more impressive records overall than Connors, Jimbo got my nod as the greatest player of all time due to the fact that Connors did it, and is still doing it (and loving it) today at nearly fifty years of age!
On to the women. Evert, King, Lenglen, and Navratilova were all pretty obvious choices due to their records, but no name jumped out at me in terms of longevity as with the men. I studied the list, looked up the names in the Bud Collins Tennis Encyclopedia and then decided that my choice was not on the list. Fortunately, there was a space at the bottom of each ballot for write-in votes and it was there that I wrote in big, bold letters my vote for the greatest female player of all time---Dodo Cheney!!!!!
WHO? Dodo Cheney, an 82 year-old woman from La Jolla, California who, for the past fifty-eight years has amassed a tournament record that is nothing short of, well great! Dodo (real name Dorothy) is currently ranked number one in the country in the women's 80's and has been THE major force in women's senior tennis for the past 42 years. Her tournament record is equaled by no one. Not even close.
When a player enters a USTA national championship, they dream of capturing the title, for if they do, they will be awarded a gold ball as a prize. It is a symbol of great achievement and to have earned a single gold ball is, needless to say, a tremendous accomplishment. Dodo Cheney has 303 of them.
That's right 303 national championships, more than any player, man or woman, in the 118 year history of national tournaments. To give you a bit of perspective, former touring-pro Gardner Molloy, who is still actively competing on the senior tour, is a distant second with only (?)135 gold balls.
Born and raised in California, both of Dodo's parents were tennis champions. Her father, Thomas, won three straight national doubles titles and represented the United States in the Davis Cup and her mother, May, was the first American woman to capture the singles championship at Wimbledon in 1905 and was later inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Dodo was introduced to the game at an early age and jokes that she was "teethed on tennis." Though she became a successful tournament player as both a junior and young adult, she was never a star and cut back on her tennis during her late twenties and thirties to devote herself to her family.
In her forties, with her three children raised, and playing tennis of course, Dodo returned to the senior circuit and the rest, as they say, is history. 303 national championships later, Cheney is still going strong. She plays 8 to 10 national tournaments a year, often playing "down" in the 75's, 70's or 65's if the field in the 80's isn't strong enough. She also plays in many invitational events and still enjoys playing socially.
I'm always fascinated when I come across a senior player still going strong into their 80's and make it a point to ask them ask them how they did it because I think that the goal for those of us who love the game would be to be still actively playing into our 80's and 90's.
What keeps Dodo going? Very simply, her love of the game. "Everything nice that's ever happened to me has been more or less because of tennis," Dodo told me recently from her home in La Jolla. "I've always loved to play and I'm very grateful to tennis for all of the friends I've made and all of the places I've seen. I even met my husband at a tennis party. I've had a tremendous amount of fun all of my life due in large part to tennis."
What about exercise or diet? "Nothing special" says Dodo. "I like to do yard work to stay in shape rather than going to a gym. If I mow the lawn or trim the trees I get a good work out and feel as if I'm accomplishing something. I have a big appetite and am somewhat careful about what I eat. I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and I very rarely eat meat. Unfortunately though, I have a great sweet tooth. I try to curtail the sweets but it's hard," she laughs. She also stays away from sodas and is a "big, big milk drinker."
A true inspiration to anyone who has ever picked up, or thought about picking up a racket, Dodo has a message for
her fellow seniors who are thinking about retiring to the rocking chair on the front porch, "DON'T!!!!!" Whether your hobby is tennis, gardening or something else, pursue it with passion, stay active and don't ever give up."
The United States Tennis Association has a slogan out which says that tennis is "the sport for a lifetime." Dodo hopes that she and her fellow super seniors can serve as an inspiration to all of us as we approach and move through our golden years. They do!
I recently turned 40 and have all of the aches and pains that come with the milestone. I also have a new idol. When I grow up I want to be Dodo Cheney. In fact, I'm going into training immediately -- as soon as I finish mowing the lawn and trimming the trees, I'm going to have a nice big glass of milk!!
See you next month.