May Bundy Rewrote the Tennis Record Books
“The only thing to be said for American women is they are usually very well dressed and extraordinarily good looking.”
--George Bernard Shaw
What Babe Ruth was to baseball, May Sutton Bundy was to tennis. She was not only America’s first Wimbledon champion of either sex, but its first authentic female sports celebrity.
From queen of the All England Tennis Club to queen of Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses, Bundy thrilled crowds and filled record books with her accomplishments.
She was the nation’s youngest women’s tennis star at age 13, captured the Southern California title nine times, beginning in 1900, and recaptured it for the last time almost three decades and four children later.
In fact, her family became what is now a century-old tennis dynasty: Daughter Dorothy “Dodo” Sutton Cheney won 298 tournament titles, including the Australian Open in 1938; grandson Brian Cheney was the nation’s third-ranked singles player and part of the No. 1 doubles combination in the 1940s; her great-grandchildren also show promise. Meanwhile, May and her husband lent their name to a now somewhat infamous Brentwood street, and their reputations to a sporty Hancock Park landmark--the Los Angeles Tennis Club.
May Bundy was born in 1888 in Plymouth, England, the youngest daughter of Adolphus DeGrouchy Sutton, a retired British navy captain and yachting enthusiast. Toasting his daughter’s 16-pound birth weight, he named her after his beautiful schooner.
“She has a beam about as broad as May. Think we’ll name her May,” he said.
When May was 6, the family moved to a 10-acre Pasadena orange grove at Mountain Street and Hill Avenue. Enlisting the help of English neighbors, the seven Sutton children built their own tennis court. Hauling clay from a nearby canyon, they pressed it smooth with a steamroller.
The precocious, stocky preteen won her first open tournament at age 12, defeating her older sister, Ethel. The next year, May won the first of many Pacific Southwest titles, beating a 22-year-old. And in 1904, she took the U.S. title, becoming the nation’s youngest women’s champion and winning a gold watch and chain linked with topaz stones. (Bundy held this record for almost eight decades, until Tracy Austin, 16 years 9 months, took it away in 1979).
Defying Victorian mores, she literally rolled up her sleeves at age 18, in 1905, becoming the first American to ever enter--let alone win--a singles title at Wimbledon, defeating England’s own Kate Douglas Chambers.
The distraught overflow English crowd stared in disbelief while the soon-to-be King George V sat in the royal box weeping, as Sutton, in her long skirt and petticoats, threw up her arms in victory.
“Pasadena Washer Woman,” and “May Sutton looks like she’s taking in washing,” British newspapers headlined, appalled that a “proper” woman would even think of rolling up her sleeves.
Treated like a truck driver at a royal lawn party, the blazing new star found that her unrestrained athleticism became her blessing, as she returned two years later for yet another Wimbledon victory.
The Birth of Tennis Club
Reigning in a different court, in 1908 she became the first sports celebrity to be named queen of the Tournament of Roses. Rolling her sleeves down, she scored a smash, carrying a pink umbrella, with her sister Florence as princess.
Three years later, she married Thomas Clark Bundy, a one-time national doubles champion who would win twice more over the next two years. Eventually, he would set his racket aside and plunge into real estate.
Playing to win once again, he developed land that included 2,000 acres of Sherman Oaks and the La Brea-Wilshire portion of the Westside. He purchased the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue for $18,000, and in the late 1920s, sold it for $420,000. It subsequently became the site of Albert C. Martin’s landmark Mutual of Omaha building.
As Thomas dabbled in land investments, May juggled three careers as wife, mother and tennis champion.
In 1915, a few months after giving birth to her second child, Bundy was asked to play in the Long Beach Charity exhibition, when Molla Mallory’s opponent couldn’t appear. Like an “old fire horse,” her husband said, Bundy returned to the court to play the much younger Mallory, the recently crowned national champion, in a singles match. Though Bundy lost the first set, she ended up beating Mallory 2-1, and later that year won the Southern California title for the eighth time.
In 1920, her husband paid $1,000 for 5 1/2 acres near Melrose Avenue and Vine Street to build the Los Angeles Tennis Club. The Spanish-style clubhouse would make its debut seven years later with Bill Tilden and his U.S. Davis Cup teammates playing an exhibition match.
Tennis began to grow from a pastime for the not-so-idle rich to a profession, and the tennis club’s proximity to major Hollywood studios attracted a coterie of movie stars.
Capitalizing on her competitive zeal, May Bundy played with the tenacity of a terrier against such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Jean Harlow, Joan Bennett, Charlie Chaplin and Clark Gable, while giving tennis lessons to actress Bebe Daniels and others.
She also found time for exhibition tennis matches against world-ranked players and Wimbledon champs, such as Helen Wills and Helen Jacobs.
An Influential Feminist
But with her triumphs came a few big bumps.
Her marriage was on the rocks. Before they separated in the late 1920s, Thomas Bundy built his wife her own tennis court on Marguerita Avenue in Santa Monica--the first court ever painted green. It was complete with a small clubhouse that Bundy would later live in with her children during the Depression.
Although separated for years before divorcing, they remained friends, and neither one ever remarried. (In 1945, five years after they divorced, Thomas Bundy died at age 64.)
In 1938, eight years after turning professional at age 42, Bundy--along with political columnist Dorothy Thompson, actress Norma Shearer and aviator Amelia Earhart--was named one of the nation’s most influential feminists. Almost 20 years later in the 1950s, Bundy became the first woman inducted into the U.S. Lawn Tennis Assn.’s Hall of Fame, recognizing her half-century of achievements.
Back on the court, Bundy and Dorothy Cheney--a dynamic duo for decades--were some match in their floppy white hats, playing mother-daughter doubles in 1968.
With an arsenal of shots, Bundy, 80, at the net, and Cheney, 51, at the baseline, overpowered their opponents, winning the first set. After more than three hours in the hot sun, they were finally outmaneuvered by a much younger team. But it didn’t stop Bundy.
Billed as the “most durable athlete of the century,” she clobbered tennis opponents nearly half her age at a 1973 tournament billed as “Age vs. Youth.”
Pressing her body and spirit to their limits, just a few months before her death in 1975, at age 88, she played her final match--and won.
Bundy left behind the landmark Hancock Park club and a major Los Angeles thoroughfare, but May’s real legacy was her triumphs over sexism and age, victories that cast an inspirational shadow far beyond center court.
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