Something goes 'twang' at Wimbledon

A tennis tournament is being played on grass courts here in this lovely corner of England. But it certainly can't be Wimbledon.

Wimbledon has never been like this:

Stalwart British fans, refusing as usual to move from their open seats at the center court despite heavy downpours of rain, peered with astonishment from beneath their umbrellas. In a tournament traditionally run by air chief marshals and old Etonians, the electronic scoreboards had suddenly gone haywire.

''Cheer if you think it's getting brighter!'' the boards flashed. They added: ''Let's have a cheer for the royal baby!'' And if that were not enough, they even committed a terrible joke:

''Knock, knock, who's there? Frank. Frank who? Frankly awful. . . .''

Civilization, as Britons know it, was shaken. (On inquiry later, an embarrassed old Etonian who might also have been an air chief marshal did have the grace to mutter, ''Not really authorized you know . . . student operators . . . bit between their teeth . . . eyebrows raised. . . .'')

Clearly something was going on. And when a reporter asked to talk to someone about other changes, he was calmly referred to . . . a public relations company downstairs below the press room.

Public relations? In this offshoot of the British establishment that has always disdained such modern inventions?

But there was Keith Hopkins of Opus Public Relations Ltd. talking about ''products'' and ''the media'' and ''planning.''

And what had been done after the headlined fracas between the club and last year's winner, John McEnroe, and recent loud complaints from other players about snootiness and inflexibility? Someone had been appointed to smooth out such frictions.

I expected to meet a man in a dark blue suit and regimental tie. Instead, I found myself talking to a charming, totally bald man wearing a rainbow-striped shirt, a brown suit with wide pinstripes, a metal bracelet on his wrist with inlaid stones, ornate tie pin and cufflinks, heavy gold rings, and a diamond sparkling in his left earlobe.

Had the traditional British establishment sunk without trace? Had the Wimbledon of upper-class accents and strawberries and cream been hijacked into nonexistence?

Well, no. It was just one of Britain's best-known institutions doing its best to move with the times.

The man asked this year by Wimbledon to iron out relations with the players is a tennis legend: Teddy Tinling, raised in France and connected with tournaments and players since the early 1920s.

He is part of the All-England Lawn Tennis Club's effort to avoid the bad publicity of last year and to ease conditions for players and public alike.

Mr. Tinling is better known to many people as a designer of tennis dresses. It was he who added lace ruffles to the woman's game for the first time in the early 1950s. (They adorned an outfit worn by Gussie Moran.)

Here he was, saying that the club had tried very hard to make sure that its conflict with the former ''superbrat'' but now milder McEnroe would never recur.

Tinling himself was in constant touch with McEnroe and his father. He was on the telephone to Chris Evert Lloyd to see if she was happy. He had discovered from Jimmy Connors's wife Patty that she had found it difficult to obtain a car back to her hotel before 5 p.m. to relieve the baby sitter for her small child - and Tinling had seen that a car was provided.

Such small touches can do wonders to defuse player discontent, especially at a tournament where club members have in the past treated players as less important than club rules and tradition.

Tinling and the club saw to it that many more practice courts were available and extra tickets provided for players and their friends.

It seemed that this tournament was Wimbledon after all, Wimbledon with a new look, despite constant interruptions by almost tropical rainstorms that made one match stretch over 44 hours before it could be completed. Mr. Hopkins of Opus Public Relations had a contract to improve relations with the press, with fans, and with the club's neighbors in exclusive Wimbledon itself, often upset at spectators' cars parked across their driveways and their narrow leafy streets clogged with traffic.

The public had extra seats (a total of 24,500 at all courts). But the center court held only 11,579. The most coveted tickets of the year, they change hands on the black market for hundreds of pounds each on the days of the finals.

Only one in eight applicants from the public receives tickets in a lottery held every December. One man complained that he had never received a ticket even though he had applied every year for 21 years.

Most of the changes, however, benefited the players.

Prize money was boosted 84 percent over last year. The top prize for men was ($1,068,055).

Professional Brian Gottfried was delighted to be able to obtain a ticket for the nanny who travels with him and his wife to take care of their son Kevin. And Stan Smith praised the extra practice courts.

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