Wimbledon, England — For the young man behind me, one of the great rituals of the English summer had begun much earlier that day - at 4 a.m. he headed for a train in Leicester for a 90-minute trip to London.
For an older, ruddy-faced man, it was his 31st year. For a middle-aged man near him, it was yet another long train ride in from near the Kent coast to the south. For me it had already meant days of contingency planning and hours of on-the-spot maneuvering.
For all of us, it was an experience all its own - part endurance test, part obstacle course, part crisis management seminar, part alertness training.
On the surface each of us wanted one of the most coveted possessions of the entire English summer and European tourist season: a ticket to the legendary center court at Wimbledon.
In fact, we wanted more than a simple square of paper.
Whether we knew it or not, we wanted a passport to one of the inner sanctums of British-ness, to a century of tradition (the first championships were held in 1877), to memories of another time, another era, when Wimbledon stood for high style as well as strawberries and cream on the lawn beside the center court stand.
Much has changed today. Britain is no longer a world power, men no longer play in long trousers (except for a young American called Trey Waltke who kept the cameras clicking this year), tantrums can overshadow the tennis, and most of the rest of the world has turned to hard or clay courts.
But just as the City of London has survived the decline of the pound sterling to remain a world financial center, so the idea, the concept of Wimbledon has triumphed over the angularities of modern life to remain a symbol of excellence.
Around the world, 350 million people still tune in their TV sets to the strip of turf used only once a year for these All England Lawn Tennis Club Championships.
Thousands more obtain tickets because they are club members, or their companies have debentures in the club, or they apply for an annual ballot held around Christmas time, or they know a player or an official.
The various courts can seat a total of 24,500 each day. Thousands more simply stand at the back, craning their necks. More than 30,000 people crowd into the club grounds every day of the matches.
What drew us here was the ultimate goal of a seat at center court, which holds only 11,579.
So great is the demand that fewer than 200 are put on sale for the public each day. None at all are available for the last four days, while ''touts'' (scalpers) sidle up to you and ask if you're prepared to pay black market prices.
On the Wednesday of the first week of Wimbledon, as I walked around the perimeter of the grounds, I was offered (STR)8 center-court seats for (STR)50 ($ 75) each. Others were on offer for (STR)100 ($150) each. For the final day, the price is (STR)300 ($450) each.
But, like the man from Leicester and the man who has been coming for 31 years , I decided simply to wait in line. Although I had a press pass, a relative was visiting from Australia. It was a life's dream to sit in the center court. Who was I to disappoint her?
The day started badly. I misread the timetable. The 7:46 a.m. train from Surrey on which I was traveling rushed straight through Wimbledon station without stopping. I sat down again, avoided other people's eyes, and on reaching London's Waterloo station took a train back to Wimbledon. I arrived outside the grounds a few minutes before 9 a.m.
There, with the man from Leicester, two office girls from Kilburn, a high school girl from Basingstoke bubbling over with plans to visit St. Louis for a year's exchange with the American Field Service, and a group of Americans working in an IBM subsidiary in Britain for a year, I joined a long, long line camped at the foot of a concrete wall topped with strands of barbed wire.
It began to rain. Spirits sank. Surely too many people were ahead of us? Surely tennis would be rained out?
A kindly steward appeared and, in immaculate accent and splendid blazer, lifted our spirits again. Usually only 188 tickets were on sale each day, but there would be more today (288 we subsequently discovered). They would go on sale at noon. We might yet arrive at the gate in time.
''The line,'' said the steward, ''gets better seats than the ballot. . . . The club thinks that standing in line all those hours should be rewarded. . . .''
I had asked my relative to join me at the gate at 1 p.m. Instant crisis: The steward tipped me off that if I went through the gate before then, I would be sold one ticket only. Buying for others is forbidden, because of scalper demand. I found a phone and ordered my relative to join me at once. But would she find me? Would she arrive in time?
Suddenly, it all went smoothly.
The rain stopped. My relative appeared. We just made the cutoff point for the center court - only five people behind us made it.
And so, for (STR)8 ($12) apiece, we finally received a yellow and white square of paper, permitting us to sit in the covered stands of the center court itself.
True, we had to sit separately. But my relative was able to proceed to her seat and, in the words on the ticket, ''view such matches as may be played on Wednesday June 22.''
No matter that seven small strawberries in a plastic container, with a squidge of cream and a dusting of sugar, cost (STR)1.45 ($2.17). No matter that 32,000 others jostled us as we looked around the grounds.
Out onto the center court walked Billie Jean King and launched into a superb three-set victory. Then came Jimmy Connors . . . and for at least one overseas visitor, a lifetime dream had indeed come true.