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100th Wimbledon: masterpiece tennis theater

By John Allan MaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 1986

Wimbledon, England

FOR two weeks now the king and queen of games holds court here in a tournament tinged with a special kind of magic. These are the 100th championships of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. (The centenary year was 1977, but the flow of tournaments was interrupted by two world wars.)

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The youngest-ever champion, Boris Becker, defends his title in the men's singles. Martina Navratilova goes for her fifth successive win in the women's event and her seventh all told. Chris Evert Lloyd, her main rival and just-crowned French Open champion, strives for her fourth Wimbledon title.

It is ``the season'' in England -- the season of royalty in sport, literally as well as metaphorically: the royal family, the queen, the duke, the Prince and Princess of Wales, Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson, all driving down the Ascot Racecourse in open landaus and summer finery . . . ladies in extravagant hats, gentlemen in gray toppers . . . rowing at Henley on the Thames with veteran oarsmen in pink rowing caps or straw boaters at the boat club and spectators lounging in lines of punts along the banks . . . Eton and Harrow Schools battling respectively on the reverenced turf of Lord's Cricket Ground . . . yachtsmen in gold-braided caps at Cowes . . . strawberries and cream beside the Centre Court to the scents of roses, blue skies, and cotton-wool clouds.

For some days now the fickle British weather has hinted at a return to past and proper glories and the hope, for Wimbledon, of a full return to that honored sportsmanship which ``the season'' here in England ought to represent.

Tennis, of course, is an extraordinary game. And played by the young on grass with modern equipment, it is also an extraordinarily difficult game, a tense game where inspiration counts almost above technique.

The modern game was actually patented by a British Army major in 1874. He called it ``Sphairistke,'' tracing it back to ancient Greece. Actually, a similar game was played on some lawns here 20 years earlier. But Maj. Walter Clopton Wingfield and the legendary Dr. Henry Jones certainly standardized it. And one of the most extraordinary things about it is that the simple rules they devised have remained essentially unchanged for more than a century.

The brilliant concept of ``deuce,'' so often interrupting the established flow of game, set, and match, and more recently the fresh concept of the tie breaker, add a breathtaking sparkle to every close-fought match. You cannot tell the way the game will turn in the next few seconds.

Tennis is a game that can be played anywhere a court can be found, anytime, by any group of two or four people -- outdoors, indoors, on grass, on clay, on wood, on Tarmac, on plastic, in the daytime or at night.

Major Wingfield even thought the game could be played on ice, the players being equipped with suitable skates. Doubtless this has been done somewhere, sometime. If not, then ice would be the only surface, surely, on which tennis has not been played.

The grass surface on which it all began remains unique, however, in that the bounce of the ball is usually less certain, often faster, and frequently lower than on other surfaces, changing the tempo and -- particularly for the top male players -- the tactics of the game.

Last year Becker, a 17-year-old West German, unsung and unseeded, powered his way to an almost incredible victory by speed of foot, speed of reaction, and a kind of inspired, reckless bravado that plucked winning points out of the air when they were most necessary.

Can he pull it off again?