Defenders Navratilova, McEnroe are big favorites at Wimbledon

It is the women players who take center stage at this years's Wimbledon Tennis Tournament. For it was just 100 years ago that the first Ladies Lawn Tennis Championship was held on the original courts of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in this same grass-green London suburb.

The experts take it almost for granted that the centenary winner will be Martina Navratilova, probably in still another final against her frequent antagonist Chris Evert Lloyd. There is a relentless quality about Martina's play these days, as if with her own coach, nutritionist, and computer specialists attending her she is quite certain no one is going to stop her bid for a third straight Wimbledon championship and fifth overall. Evert Lloyd, however, is herself a three-time winner and could find the vital inspiration here that for some reason has been missing in touranments elsewhere this year.

Among the men an equally strong favorite in the two-week test which begins today and continues through July 8 is John McEnroe, who will be seeking his third title here in four years. Most observers feel that at his current level of play the defending champion can only be beaten by himself.

This happened in Paris only very recently when he won the first two sets from Ivan Lendl and was up 40-0 in the fifth game of the third set when suddenly he lost both his cool and his grip on the match. After John allowed himself to lose his concentration while roasting a cameraman his whole game went to pieces - and with it his finest chance yet of a Grand Slam.

McEnroe did win the warm-up ''Stella Artois'' tournament in London easily enough last week, defeating Jimmy Connors in two sets and only 64 minutes on the way. But his behavior toward officials was rated in the British press ''a shameful display of bad manners.''

An English member of parliament who is also a qualified tennis umpire, Harry Greenway, has even suggested John be banned from the game for two years. At a press conference when he was autographing rackets, McEnroe traded insults with the media, and aggravation-wise probably won, but further badmouthing of officials here at Wimbledon could lose him not only the respect of the European tennis world but the tournament itself.

Personally, I think John McEnroe is aware of this. He is not going to admit it to journalists, but what happened on the clay court in Paris shook him down to his ankles. He knows that he alone beat himself. I don't think he wants to make that mistake here.

One hopes this is a correct judgment, for there is no doubting his tennis excellence. It is of course impossible to tell who can be rated 'the best ever, ' but John McEnroe's tennis game would put him right up there in the finals of any argument on this point.

The men's competition is so deep these days, though, that any match can be a tough one. McEnroe's very first encounter, for instance, will be with Paul McNamee of Australia, who beat him on the Paris clay four years ago.

Toward the end, of course, Jimmy Connors and Lendl will probably be there. And if one were looking for a dark horse, a good choice might be Jimmy Arias.

Mats Wilander of Sweden is very, very good. But on present form he is no Bjorn Borg - and it will take a Borg to beat any of these top three seeds.

To return to the women, an interesting comparison can be made between Navratilova and Britain's Jo Durie, who last year rose to 10th place in the computer rankings, but whose current form offers little hope of a ''home favorite'' success story here.

While Martina surrounds herself with even more 'gurus' than Durie does, she dominates them. Up to this point Jo has allowed herself to be dominated, particularly by her coach, Alan Jones. The consequences are there for all to see, as in last week's warmup at Eastbourne, when she allowed herself to be beaten by the very opponent she will meet in the first round at Wimbledon, the unseeded Kim Shaefer.

Jo has the power and the talent to match Martina, but she will never get near her if she does not now take charge of her own game and her own personality. Which perhaps is the prime lesson of a century of women's tournament tennis - or , in a broader context, of women's advance toward equality in all areas.

But nothing about this tournament can truly be foretold - and one particularly uncertain element, as always, is the fickle English weather. So far the weather has helped the ground staff prepare grass of superlative quality. An early wet spell, followed by a dry spring, followed by a sunny, hot and humid open-door summer have produced a perfect turf for tennis. Let's hope the weather holds.

The same conditions have also produced perfect English strawberries, traditionally the fruit of Wimbledon eaten with cream and sugar under the wide sunshades of a dozen small open-air restaurants and on the sloping picnic grounds.

This women's centenary year should provide a truly great festival of tennis - intriguing opening rounds; superlative matches in the late stages of both singles and doubles; established reputations reinforced; unknowns making their marks; juniors freshening the tournament; seniors reviving splendid memories; and happy crowds in the tens of thousands ringing every court and milling in the narrow walkways between rose-covered walls.

Wish you were here.

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