Wimbledon, England — There's drama aplenty here at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club as the premier tournament fights its own match against the powerful but unseasonal English weather. Never has it rained quite so often during the first week of Wimbledon. The club actually keeps (and prints) a score sheet on the rain, and while 24 days have been completely rained out since 1877, never before have so few matches been played during the first three days.
Jimmy Connors, probably playing his last Wimbledon, started in tremendous form, beating Sweden's Stefan Simonsson 6-1, 6-3, 6-4, but immediately afterward suggested the tournament might consider dispensing with its grass altogether.
Club officials kept dry upper lips. Don't worry, they said, we will easily beat the weather. Some rest days will have to go, but that's probaby all. But certainly the possibility has been raised again of covering over the Centre and No. 1 courts. (An estimate has been given already of the cost -- around $3 million.)
Top-seeded John McEnroe came through his match with Australia's Peter McNamara with ease 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. With the score tied 3-3 in the first set, however, the already-delayed match was interrupted when the wet grass found the players and the ball sliding all over the place. The finish was postponed until the next day.
The low, fast bounce of the ball was one factor in the dramatic first-round defeat of fourth-seeded Mats Wilander, the current Australian and French titleholder. His opponent was the 6 ft. 6 in. Yugoslavian with the tongue-twisting name, Slobodan Zivojinovic, who served not ony with tremendous power but at times with pinpoint accuracy. Zivojinovic (pronounced Zheevo-yinyovich) had 11 double faults, but 16 aces. Wilander held on until he crumbled in the fourth set, losing the match 6-2, 5-7, 7-5, 6-0.
Mats had taken two weeks off after winning the French championship on clay, which proved to have been a grave error of judgment. ``Bobo,'' as Slobodan is called, played two warmup tournaments on grass. This apparently provided the world's 77th ranked player with all the confidence he needed in his Wimbledon debut.
The women's competition did not properly get underway until the third and fourth days. There seemed likely to be less drama, although some excellent tennis.
Three-time defending champion Martina Navratilova opened as one would expect in utterly commanding fashion. She outclassed Lisa Bonder 6-0, 6-2 in her opening match. Bonder appealed to Alan Mills the referee to stop play on account of the slippery nature of the grass, but Mills said ``play on.'' The 19-year-old American seemed to lose heart.
Britain's Amanda Brown also showed how important it is to be an actress as well as a tennis player in such a tournament as this. She took the first set off Argentina's 15-year-old Gabriela Sabatini with little difficulty. She was doing well in the second set too when some flashing tennis by the schoolgirl clearly unsettled her. She let self-doubt show. Her shoulders slumped. She acted as if she knew she would lose. And she did 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, actually going out serving a double fault.
Gabriela definitely is a star of the future, graceful as a gazelle, young enough to enjoy the game, but old enough to play at the very top.
It doesn't look at the moment as though anyone but Chris Evert Lloyd, who shares the No. 1 seeding with Navratilova, is going to challenge Martina. Even so, Sabatini is one of a number of young stars with all the makings of future champions.
Kathy Rinaldi of the United States, Pascale Paradis of France, Manuela Maleeva and her sister Katerina of Bulgaria, Steffi Graf of West Germany, Carling Bassett of Canada, and Britain's Annabel Croft are all in the running.
Among the young men two or three stand out. But it could be that when McEnroe retires the days of the total champion will be over.
There is very little to choose between the games of the power-serving youngsters, and a great deal always depends on which of them on a given day holds, and serves, the aces.
Australia's Pat Cash immediately ran into trouble against American Todd Nelson, who is some three dozen places below him in the rankings. And Aaron Krickstein joined Wilander as the only other seeded male eliminated in the first round, losing to fellow American Bud Schultz in four sets.
Boris Becker of West Germany has been tremendously impressive. So too has Sweden's Stefan Edberg. Becker is only 17, Edberg 19. When Becker's age Edberg won the junior Grand Slam (the 18-and-under titles of the US, Australia, France, and Britain).
The English weather this year will play a vital role in their immediate progress as it may do in the future of Wimbledon itself.
The long queues still form in the early mornings. Side streets a mile away are blocked with parked cars. There's still a big sale for strawberries and cream.
But the question hangs in the air like the thunderhead that served the first warning of the opening day, literally delivering a thunderbolt that knocked a piece off the new Centre Court extension:
Should not more be done to safeguard this the most prestigious tennis tournament of all?