Two magical weeks for tennis are beginning here. The occasion, of course, is the 104th All-England Championship, known simply as "Wimbledon" to the masses. It's the world's last great grass-court tournament, but the world's first in terms of time, Prestige, tradition, and excellence.
This year there are extra reasons for Wimbledon's sparkle. Can Bjorn Borg really win Wimbledon six years in a row? Most experts think it unlikely. But the superb Swede could just do it.
Or is it John McEnroe's year? A lot of people think so.Nor are Jimmy Connor's chances being sold short.
Among the women, top-seeded Chris Evert Lloyd is the favorite. But there's a determined look about Martina Navratilova, made furious by the seeding decision that ranks her, a two-time champion, fourth behind Lloyd, Hana Mandlikova, and Tracy Austin.
But besides the tennis itself there is another big question mark over this year's Wimbledon: Can the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club be persuaded at long last into the 20th century?
The club is a marvelous anachronism. It's more difficult to enter than the House of Lords, for so long rated "the best club in London." The annual membership fee is less than $20, the annual membership perks rated at about $10, 000. Debentures (preferred stock) giving rights to center court seats are sold on the stock market. Profits from the tournament tot up to millions.
The club keeps its account secret. But the question is being more and more strenuously asked: Does the Wimbledon club give back enough to the game?
This question will probably be answered this year.And after this, if it is, the game of tennis could get the boost in Britain that it so desperately needs and has so sadly lacked these past 20 years.
But at the moment it is enough for the chairman, Air Chief Marshall Sir Brian Burnett, that the club, old fashioned though it may be, organizes "the best-run tournament in the world." And nobody here would argue. This is the tournament the stars must win, the satellite pros must play in, and the spectators must see. Many hundreds try to qaulify, for just to have "played at Wimbledon" is enough for them. Tens of thousands try to get in to watch, for to have "been at Wimbledon this year" establishes a true tennis fan's credentials.
To win Wimbledon requires supreme skill. The grass courts, sometimes ice-fast, sometimes tacky slow, often as unpredictable as the English summer weather, test skill, reflexes, and character to the utmost.
If many experts doubt that Borg can win again, it is not only because he has had a very poor year by his own standards, but because, according to McEnroe, his attitude has changed.Where he was once relentless in defense of every point, he now seems anxious to end a rally quickly with a winner.
But McEnroe's attitude too is suspect. At the top, a winner's mind cannot be in two places at once. Total concentration on the ball is essential. Resentment at a bad call is almost always worth a point -- perhaps a game -- to a clear-minded opponent.
There are also exciting newcomers to the top rankings in the men's singles. Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, seeded fourth here, is one, and Victor Pecci (No. 11) another.
The women's singles seems to be more open than usual.Lloyd has been playing well. Mandlikova, another Czech star, has won two legs of the Grand Slam -- Australian and French Opens -- but was beaten in the Eastbourne prelim by Kim Sands and is having touble with her back.
Austin, winner of the Eastbourne tuneup, seems cool, carefree, and resolute; Navratilova, serious and unyielding. Andrea Jaegar conceivably could upset them all.
This year there is no british player in the seedings. Sue Barker, however, took Mandlikova to three sets at Eastbourne, eventually losing 7-6, 3-6, 3-6.
In the men's singles the Britons are totally out of the reckoning. And this adds to the pressure now building up here on the All England Club to give up not only some of its privileges, but more of the money it makes out of tennis for the general benefit of the game in the country that invented it.
Borg himself does not see how Great Britain can ever expect to raise tennis champions again with the setup as it is.
"Where are the indoor courts?" he asks. "In Sweden, where the summers are short, we play most indoors and in the winters."
There are in fact quite a few indoor courts now in Britain. But almost all are part of leisure complexes built by local town councils, almost all of which are unprofitable. Some have a desolate air about them.
The thing is that the vital links between wimbledon, the Lawn Tennis Association, teachers, and the grass-roots game are still very weak. But this year there's a new determination in the air to ensure they're strengthened at long last.
Things are changing here at this majestic but tradition-bound championship, and changing for the better.