Grande Dame of the Grand Slam : Not Sampras. Not Graf. 'Dodo' Cheney is the winningest player tennis has known. Really. And at nearly 80, she has no intention of slacking off now.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The door knocker is a brass tennis racquet. Silver and crystal in the living room, all the vases, tea trays, photo frames, punch bowls, cups, tankards and snifters are tennis trophies. First places only, singles and doubles. Rows of remembrances of decades of play and hundreds of titles battled on courts of grass, carpet, clay or hunter-green asphalt.

Even the voice on the answering machine sustains the Wimbledon mythos and promises to return calls with the speed of an overhead smash.

For this is a house that tennis filled; the ocean-side home of Dodo Bundy Cheney, 79, also a sanctum for one family, one sport and their century-long lineage from white flannel pants and wooden racquets to Nike bandannas and graphite cannons.

There was Dad, the late Thomas Bundy. He was in real estate, developed the La Brea-Wilshire portion of Westside Los Angeles and, yes, did lend his name to a street that will live in infamy. He also was a three-time national doubles champion, 1912-'14.

There was Mom, the late May Sutton Bundy. At 16, she was the nation's youngest women's champion. In 1905, she became the first American to win a singles title at Wimbledon, a victory repeated two years later.

In 1920, the Bundys, married . . . with children, built the Los Angeles Tennis Club.

Which brings us to their daughter, Dorothy Bundy Cheney, the indestructible Dodo, only a week from her 80th birthday and still clobbering all (and mostly younger) comers at national tournaments.

Although never a Sports Illustrated cover jock, although still awaiting her niche in the Tennis Hall of Fame, Dodo Cheney, by national titles in crowded age divisions, is the winningest tennis player the sport has known.

From any era.

From any country.

Here's the score:

* In five decades of senior serve-and-volley wars, she has won an astonishing 269 gold-plated balls, miniatures presented by the United States Tennis Assn. to winners of its national titles, amateur or professional, junior or senior. Many believe her total can only be beaten by someone playing until he or she is 138 years old.

Cheney's closest rival, of all ages, of either gender, is Gardner Mulloy, 82, a former U.S. Davis Cup player and four-time doubles champion of the U.S. Open. Mulloy has 100 balls and "great respect for Dodo Cheney . . . but no hope of catching her."

To inject a little perspective to all this math, Andre Agassi, as winner of the U.S. Open in 1994, has just one gold ball in his trophy case.

"It is remotely possible that I could win 300 [balls]," Cheney says. Especially if the USTA, as it has with men's divisions, expands women's playing categories beyond 80-year-olds. "But my real aim is to keep healthy, and to keep playing as long as my legs, eyes and mind hold out."

* The USTA assigns Grand Slam status as the ultimate honor for players winning all four national titles--on grass, hard courts, indoors or on clay--in a single year. Cheney thinks she has won 20 Grand Slams. Maybe 30.

"I'll have to count them one day," she says. Her curls are blond bubbles, her smile a kid's mischief. "At our age, it's important to keep those little old brain cells working."

* Cheney won last year's Grand Slam. For singles and doubles. Just for the heck of it, at Baton Rouge, La., and Palm Coast, Fla., she played down a decade and won the Women's 70 on grass and clay. Again, in singles and doubles.

"I got her in 1985 when I turned 65 and just hung on," says perennial doubles partner Corky Murdock of Los Angeles. She acknowledges her yin to Cheney's yang and a telepathy between them. "She has every kind of game . . . a hard, classic forehand with a wide backswing until there's no way an opponent can read the racquet. Not much of a backhand and she has to run around it.

"But an outstanding service always into one corner or another. No matter how far behind she gets, she'll always come back because she doesn't know when to give up. I tell you, she's the competitor from hell."

Especially, Murdock says, when her oldest and dearest friend is playing draw poker well enough to pay their tournament expenses.

*

Cheney--with "Dodo" the legacy from a baby brother who couldn't get his tongue around "Dorothy"--was playing tennis before Calvin Coolidge was president. Before Capone ruled Chicago, before Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, before Dempsey fought Tunney--and about the time Pete Sampras' grandparents were in diapers.

In 1927--the year Lindbergh did make it to Paris--Dorothy May Bundy, 11, then of Santa Monica, entered the Southern California Junior Championships and left with her first cup.

"Here's my little treasure, engraved with my name, date and everything," she says. After 70 years of nostalgic handling, the little urn shows pot metal through its silver plate. "Gosh, this is my first real tennis memory."

In 1938--with Helen Wills Moody, Alice Marble and Sarah Palfrey Cooke the reigning legends--Cheney won the Australian Open. She later played a Pacific Southwest tournament five months pregnant and the glow of pending motherhood kept her "so at ease, I took my time and won the durned thing."

She doesn't, however, win all the durn time.

Six years ago, as part of a USTA promotion to involve the up-and-coming with the game's golden players, Cheney played Compton protege Venus Williams, then 9.

"She played like she was 16," remembers Cheney. "Her shoes are size 9, she is taller than me and whacks the ball five times harder. She waxed me."

So did late hustler Bobby Riggs, who teamed with Mulloy in 1992 and challenged Cheney and Murdock to yet another battle of the sexes. Although Riggs was fighting cancer--a match he eventually lost--he and Mulloy beat the ladies 6-4, 6-4.

Remembers Mulloy: "Bobby told me: 'I can hit balls that come at me. But you get all the lobs, cover the backhand and forehand and maybe serve all the time.' I was running everywhere and it was the toughest match I've ever played."

Riggs, true to form, was betting everyone.

Says Mulloy: "He won $3,000, and I got $1,500 and my plane fare from Miami."

Good for them, Cheney says.

"We had lots of fun, but didn't win anything," she grumbles.

*

To neuroscientists and psychologists and other brainpower explorers, the longevity and pin-sharp mind of Dodo Cheney are no great surprise.

They know that exercise has been improving muscular function since Pleistocene people first raised clubs and realized regular swinging brings home easier and fresher mastodon meat.

They also know of concurrent studies at the University of Illinois, UC Irvine, the National Institute of Aging, NASA and Duke University that indicate exercise benefits the brain by growing more blood vessels. Which increases cerebral nutrients, which strengthens the brain's 1 trillion neurons.

And if the chosen activity involves mental skills--such as deciding precise foot placement to execute the perfect forehand volley--exercise could well build more brain cells and improve mental health, i.e. the ability to think.

Of course there are givens: Exercise, both physical and mental, must be constant. It also helps to have a strong, reliable, undamaged physique in the first place.

"There are individual differences in one's constitution and not everybody is going to be a Dodo Cheney and play an excellent game of tennis at 80 years of age, even if they started at age 10," explains Bill Greenough, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, Champaign. "There will be variances, just as some people carry genes that make cholesterol bad."

Cheney certainly considers her genes stuffed with family strengths and tennis balls.

Mother played the game until the year before she died at 88. Dodo's son, Brian Cheney, 49, is a teaching professional in Phoenix, played World Team Tennis with Chris Evert and has won a dozen national seniors titles. His son, Andrew, is at UC Irvine on a tennis scholarship.

And Dodo's daughter, Christie Putnam of Escondido, shares one golden ball with her mother--the 1976 USTA mother-daughter title played on grass.

Apart from her genetic edge, Cheney agrees completely with Greenough's theory of cerebral regeneration by plying mental skills. That's why she does jigsaw and Crostics puzzles, and plays almost as much poker as she does bridge, hearts, gin rummy, cribbage, pinochle, blackjack, red dog or any game where skill beats the luck of the deal.

She sews her own outfits: "I try to make them as feminine as possible with pastel colors and lace, and I like to doll up my bonnets. As gritty as tennis is, us girls, us women, us old bags, should look as feminine as possible."

She gardens: "I love to grow vegetables, squash, tomatoes and potatoes. I've got two fig trees, oranges and lemons."

After escaping a midlife weight crisis she blames on too much vodka and orange juice, too many desserts, fast foods and good times, Cheney eats all she grows: "Put me on a desert island and I'd be perfectly happy because I love fruits and vegetables. A little red meat, lots of fish, no caffeine and cereal every day."

Cheney, continuing to poke at family traits, also believes in thinking positively and living youthfully.

That's why she once bought a low, snorting, mas macho Chevrolet Corvette from a man at a carwash.

"It was her 75th birthday present to herself," Murdock explains. "We drove all over Los Angeles in that car. One day, some youngsters pulled alongside, looked us over and yelled: 'Did you borrow that from your grandmother?' "

Yet there's one puzzle Cheney has never been able to figure: Exactly what to do with 269 gold balls in boxes and drawers throughout every room in the house. Including the garage.

"At one point in time, I made earrings out of the balls," she says. "But they were too cumbersome."

So daughter May made some suggestions.

"She said melt them down, give them to the government and get rid of the national debt," Cheney says. "Or I could drill finger holes in them and pretend I was a bowling champion."

*

Her home is a white-shingled dollhouse on a side street. Front and back, flower beds and a vegetable patch are kept precise by daily attention. Inside, there's that shrine to tennis and an endless photo gallery to Cheney children and grandchildren, grandparents and parents, patriarchs and matriarchs, and hundreds of framed portraits and snapshots predating every Kodak moment.

It's a safe, peaceful bungalow.

But for Dodo Cheney--widow of a retired airline pilot and recently moved to La Jolla from Santa Monica--keeping life's pace hasn't been effortless.

In the beginning, there were indeed privileges of a wealthy family. Private schools. Private tennis clubs.

The Depression ended all that in 1929 when Cheney's school became Santa Monica High. Then her parents divorced.

"Fortunately, I had my tennis and was traveling to Australia, South America and England," Cheney recalls. "But after four years of that, I decided I needed an education."

She went to Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., on a tennis scholarship. She took social studies and international relations and wanted, desperately, a career in opera "to sing, to create that art."

"I took lessons. I religiously sang scales and did breathing exercises and tried to find a natural ability. In the end, my teacher told me: 'Dodo, you'd better stick to your tennis.'

"I still wish I could sing."

Cheney worked parts control at a defense plant during World War II and married her pilot--a polo player who, obviously, would be converted to tennis--in 1946. Children came and for Brian, May and Christie, the lessons of tennis became their advice for life.

"She would always keep the game challenging, always playing just a little bit harder to make you try harder," remembers Brian. "Then she'd come up with a shot that would kill you."

Mom, Brian says, taught that tennis and life were serious occupations never to be taken too seriously. That doing things well builds confidence and self-esteem. That tenacity is the enemy of disappointment.

If only one thing could be taken from her life, he adds, it would be "a positive attitude and belief that all things will work out for the best."

"When I lost, she would say: 'Well, that's too bad.' If I won, she would tend to put it down, just a bit. That's why we're very, very good friends."

As a very good friend of American tennis, Dodo Cheney has given 20 years to tutoring Santa Monica youngsters enrolled in her teen player program. Despite a chronically sore wrist and knees that once begged arthroscopic surgery, she continues to contribute to her sport.

"Success makes her our role model," says Merry Kelly, a USTA director. "She's proof that just because you hit 60, life does not become retirement, Social Security and staying home."

Nor are loneliness, rejection and impairment life's unavoidable penalties.

"She lives the slogan behind all our senior activities," Kelly says. "That tennis is the sport of a lifetime."

*

Cheney is on Court 11 at La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club and--as is her wont for a profitable workout--is hitting with a younger, stronger, male player.

She sets the ground rules. Her opponent must play the game of an 80-year-old. Soft ground strokes. Plenty of chips. No hard serving.

Cheney has a spin serve that lands deep into selected corners and curls away. Every ball hit at her is returned with mild pace, but serious guile and direction. On the lines. To both wings, and always away from her opponent.

The ageless wonder quickly runs the score to 3-0.

The frustrated man tightens up. He adds a little more pace to the returns. He hits down the line. Cheney's 80-year-old pins make her a sucker for really deep balls and anything just out of immediate reach.

He is sweating. She is glistening.

And the score evens out to 4-4.

Cheney reaches deep into her bag of shots. She fires drop shots that couldn't be better disguised if hit from inside a tent. One bloops over the net and hits the ground like a dead sparrow. Another should have been arrested for loitering.

Game, set and match to Cheney, 6-4.

Next time, I'll insist on hitting my hard serve.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Dodo Bundy Cheney

Age: 79.

Background: Born in Santa Monica, lives in La Jolla.

Family: Widowed; two daughters, May and Christie, and a son, Brian; eight grandchildren.

Interests: Sewing, music, gardening, tennis on grass, tennis on clay, tennis indoors, tennis outdoors.

On winning: "When I was a kid, win, lose or draw, I didn't give a hoot. I just loved the game. Now, as a senior player, I'm more determined and competitive. Now I hate to lose. At the bridge table or on the tennis court."

On losing: "Sometimes losing is good for you. It teaches you you still have stuff to learn."

On God's gifts: "I do believe we're born with a gift, a certain hereditary talent for something. Unfortunately, some people don't have the enthusiasm or the opportunity to develop their gifts."

On playing against age: "My anticipation is still good, but the years take away your vision, agility and speed. You compensate by developing strategy, placement and control."

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