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It’s All Relative at the La Jolla Tennis Championships : This Family Tied Together With Racket Strings

Sixty years, 189 national titles and acid-washed denim tennis wear separate the two generations exchanging ground strokes on Court 1 at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.

Dorothy (DoDo) Cheney, 72, moves fluidly and effortlessly as she dispenses topspin forehands and half-court volleys to her eager and sometimes outmaneuvered grandson, Andrew Cheney, 12. Nearby, a third generation watches the reunion with approval.

“She’s chipping to him, giving him all sorts of shots he never sees in junior play,” said Christie Putnam of Escondido.

Putnam--Dorothy’s daughter and Andrew’s aunt--and 13 of her relatives have checked into this seaside resort for the family’s annual week of renewal and revival. Five of them will play in the 73rd La Jolla Tennis Club Championships.

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“We’ve been doing this ever since I can remember,” said Putnam, 37. Previous generations of Cheneys have met and played in this tournament for 35 years, for the past 11 at the Beach & Tennis Club.

“I’ve been playing this tournament consistently for the past 60 years,” Dorothy Cheney said. “It’s fun. Staying here is so special.”

By the end of the week, the number in the party could reach 20. Andrew and his father, Brian Cheney; Putnam and her cousin, Patricia Smith of Sacramento, and Dorothy Cheney of Santa Monica are entered in the championships.

Even non-tennis playing members, who fill their vacation time with games and water sports, are supportive of relatives who play.

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“Everyone watches the other family members who are playing,” Putnam said. “There’s so much support. Everybody is for everyone else. I’ve overheard people saying, ‘If I only had that kind of support.’ Look at Michael Chang (French Open champion). He’s reaping the benefits of a supportive family.”

According to Putnam’s brother, Brian Cheney of Phoenix, this family-style tennis creates a closeness that other sports can’t duplicate.

“How could you play Little League as a family?” he said. “Tennis is unique in that respect. It bonds you.”

Said Putnam: “Tennis satisfies something that can’t be satisfied by anything else.”

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Smith, 36, grew up in La Jolla, playing tennis but didn’t take the game too seriously.

“My parents would drop me off at tournaments, and I’d go to the beach,” Smith said. “I was rebellious. I didn’t want to play.”

Now, she enjoys its benefits. “Tennis opens a lot of doors. Every tournament is like a reunion. You know people in every city where you play.”

Although only five family members entered this tournament, almost everyone plays to some degree.

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Putnam’s husband, Richard, is a social player. Their three children play; like her mother before her, Putnam is only interested in passing on what’s positive about the game.

“I honestly don’t know what a tennis parent is,” Putnam said. “My mom hit with me, but we honestly enjoyed our time out on the court. She never put any pressure on me.”

But family outings didn’t venture far from a court.

“Growing up, at all our family reunions, we’d all play tennis,” Putnam said. “There was always a tennis court somewhere.”

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Two of Brian Cheney’s five children play on high school tennis teams, and Andrew plays in junior tournaments in Arizona.

“I see Andrew developing,” Brian Cheney said. “It’s such a fabulous experience. They’ll enjoy the game for a long time. You can’t be in our family without playing tennis.”

Indeed. Tennis and the Cheney legacy are synonymous:

--In 1905, Dorothy Cheney’s mother, May Sutton (Bundy), 18, was the first American to win the women’s singles title at Wimbledon. She did it again in 1907.

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--Thomas Bundy, Dorothy Cheney’s father, was a doubles specialist. With Maurice McLoughlin, he won U.S. Nationals doubles titles from 1912 to 1914.

--In 1938, Dorothy Cheney won the Australian Open. She holds the record for national titles (189) and is now the top-ranked player in 70s singles and doubles.

--From 1976 to 1978, Brian Cheney played with Chris Evert for the Phoenix Racquets of the World Team Tennis league. Cheney is ranked No. 3 in singles and No. 1 in doubles in the 40s national rankings.

--Putnam shares her one national title with her mother. In 1976, they won the U.S. Tennis Assn. mother/daughter grass court national championship.

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--In 1968, the Cheney family was named “Tennis Family of the Year,” by the USTA.

The Cheneys also have an impressive track record at the La Jolla tournament.

Brian Cheney won the men’s open division from 1975 to 1977 and has won his age division championships for the past eight years.

Dorothy Cheney won nine open division titles--her mother won it in 1928, seven years before her daughter won it for the first time in 1935--and 13 consecutive singles titles from 1956 to 1969 in the 40s age bracket. She is the defending champion in her age division.

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“We just love to play,” Dorothy Cheney said. “And we’re so proud of my heritage.”

May Sutton Bundy never achieved the recognition that other players of her era did, but her granddaughter said her talent was overlooked.

“She was a plucky player,” Putnam said. “She would have been as great as everyone else if she had the training and the practice.”

In 1975, at the age of 88, Sutton Bundy died. “She played until the summer before she passed away,” Putnam said. “She was a radical.”

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Dorothy Cheney hopes her longevity equals that of her mother.

“I have two goals,” she said. “My ambition is to try and win 11 more titles, to get my 200, and to play into my 80s, like my mother.”

Of all her victories, Dorothy Cheney remembers the mother/daughter national championship title match most fondly.

“It was the only time I ever threw my racket up after winning,” Dorothy Cheney said.

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Said Putnam: “It was great. We had played so many times before and lost. I even remember match point. It was a lob. And it was clearly mine. Mom called it. She wanted to make sure we’d win the point.”


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