Wimbledon, England — Warnings of possible thunderstorms at the weekend came as this splendid but still slightly eccentric Wimbledon tennis tournament powered its sunlit way toward its climax. Social historians might find some symbolism in that. There's thunder in the news outside the courts while on them players battle for the major shares of the record $2.5 million in prize money.
Only 15 years old, the lovely young Argentinian Gabriela Sabatini is already a millionairess, they say. But she did not even reach the third round in ``the ladies' singles'' here. Jimmy Connors, probably making his final bid for ``the gentlemen's singles'' as the men's sector still is called here, told a reporter ``tennis has got to the point where playing for $50,000 every week is a joke. Everybody is going to be playing for $250,000.'' The game, he declared, has ``lost its way.''
But for the present the skies over this green, rose-scented London suburb are blue and clear again with only scattered summer clouds drifting occasionally across. The air is warm. The crowds are vast and loudly enthusiastic. Much of the tennis is superb.
Defending champion and top-seeded John McEnroe, almost everybody's favorite to win the men's title for the fourth time and possibly the doubles for the fifth, says he has grown up. ``I don't know if it is making me a better tennis player,'' he declares, ``but it is making me a better person.''
In the women's singles both Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova, who are co-seeded No. 1, have advanced with little trouble. Navratilova, who is attempting to win a fourth straight Wimbledon singles crown, beat South Africa's Rene Uys Tuesday to become the first player to reach the quarterfinals. Evert Lloyd, who has lost only 11 games in her first four matches, followed suit with a victory over Anne Smith.
At the beginning of the week, the third- and -fourth-seeded women players were defeated in two of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Czechoslovakia's Hana Mandlikova, No. 3, lost to Australia's Elizabeth Smylie in straight sets, and Bulgaria's Manuela Maleeva, No. 4, was upended by little-known qualifier Molly Van Nostrand of Bright Waters, N. Y. Smylie, however, proceeded to be eliminated in a one-sided match by American Kathy Rinaldi.
Fifth-seeded Pam Shriver put an end to the last hopes of Britain's finest modern star, Virginia Wade, ``Our Ginny,'' the women's champion of Wimbledon's centenary year in 1977. And, oh, how the crowd backed the cheerful, volatile Virginia as she strove gallantly in her singles swan song, only to lose 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.
It was the second match here in which Shriver faced a newsmaking opponent. In an earlier round she had the rather disconcerting task of playing against American Anne White, who chose their match to wear a form-fitting white body suit that caused quite a stir. The tournament umpire, in fact, demanded a return to more conventional attire on the second day of their interrupted match, won by Shriver 6-3, 6-7, 6-3. Pam reached the quarterfinals on Tuesday by defeating Olympic champion Steffi Graf of West Germany in another 3-setter.
Meanwhile Britain's Jo Durie, who dispatched No. 6 seed Claudia Kohde-Kilsch to shrill patriotic cheering, lost to America's Barbara Potter.
One of the most interesting women entrants this year was Hu Na, who defected to the US from China three years ago. She had to play in the qualifying rounds to make the 128-player field, whereupon she won two matches against unseeded opponents before losing to Uys.
If they can't have victory, British fans rise to resolution, as they did again to that shown by John Lloyd, who came from way behind to beat 13th seeded Eliot Teltscher 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 7-5, only to fall almost gloriously to the brilliant Frenchman Henri Leconte in four closely-contested sets.
Leconte wasn't done, though, because he then knocked off second-seeded Ivan Lendl 3-6, 6-4 6-3, 6-1 and now takes on on 17-year-old Boris Becker of West Germany, who beat Tim Mayotte to reach the quarterfinals.
Becker had earlier upset the seventh seed, Sweden's Joakim Nystrom in a long, exhausting match that went to 9-7 in the fifth set. Becker is certainly going to be a major force in men's tennis in two years time, if not right now.
The red-haired West German has a tremendously powerful game, his second serve often as strong as his first, and is also extremely agile for so big a man (6 ft. 11/2 in., 173 lbs.). He is technically well-equipped too. Some of his low, dipping topspin returns were virtually unplayable on a grass court in these conditions.
Another youngster to watch, Stefan Edberg of Sweden, seeded 14th here, had to meet Kevin Curren, seeded eighth, if he was to advance toward a clash with McEnroe.
Slobodan Zivojinovic, the Yugoslav who grabbed headlines when he upset fourth-seeded Mats Wilander in Wimbledon's first week, bowed out quickly by losing his next match to Switzerland's Heinz Gunthardt.