100th Wimbledon: masterpiece tennis theater

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.)

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?

Observers doubt it. The computer ranks him fourth in the world. And although the computer knows nothing at all about grass, the very closeness of several of the young West German's matches, where victory was literally measured in half inches, make it unlikely that lightning will strike twice in the same place so soon. Czechoslovak Ivan Lendl, a two-time semifinalist (although he has yet to produce his best tennis here), is ranked No. 1. If the seedings work out, he should meet second-seeded Mats Wilander of Sweden in the final.

The playing status of American Jimmy Connors, a former champion, has been in question following an injury that caused him to withdraw from the finals of the Stella Artois warm-up tournament at Queen's Club, London.

Other big names are missing this year for one reason or another. Yannick Noah of France, the world's fifth-ranked player, officially withdrew last week, also because of an injury. And American John McEnroe, the winner here in 1981, 1983, and '84, is also on the sidelines as he continues his voluntary absence from tennis to attend to personal matters. There's still plenty of strength and depth in the men's field, however. Kevin Curren, last year's beaten finalist, is not even seeded among the first eight. Nor is fellow American Tim Mayotte, who won the Stella Artois tournament.

Those looking for a surprise finalist on July 6 see Mayotte as a good possibility. The young American's serve-and-volley game is well suited to grass, and he usually plays well here, as evidenced by one appearance in the semifinals, two in the quarterfinals, and two in the final 16 over the past five years.

In addition to Wilander, there are three other Swedish players among the first eight seeds -- Stefan Edberg, Joakim Nystrom, and Anders Jarryd. The French national champion, Henri Leconte, is seeded seventh. He beat Lendl in the fourth round last year.

A striking newcomer is Mikael Pernfors of Sweden, whose two straight US National Collegiate Athletic Association titles (1984-85) while playing for the University of Georgia marked the first time anyone has accomplished that feat since Dennis Ralston two decades ago. Pernfors fought through Becker, Edberg, and Leconte in this year's French championships before losing to Lendl, the world's No. 1 player, in the finals.

Chris Evert Lloyd beat fellow American Navratilova on the clay in Paris this year in a match of great beauty. Although she has lost five finals to her great rival on the fast grass of Wimbledon, and may well lose a sixth, the lure of further victories has kept her playing.

Unfortunately the rising West German star Steffi Graf is not able to play this year because of illness. American Kathy Jordan, who beat Evert Lloyd here in the third round in 1983, will meet her again in the fourth round if the seedings hold. British competitors Jo Durie and Anne Hobbs will need to spring big surprises if they are to reach the last eight. Annabel Croft could do it, though.

Wimbledon, however, is not really a British tournament. It's international and has been so for a long time. Tens of thousands of people don't stand in line for hours on end in this tree-lined London suburb for patriotic reasons. And they do still stand in line for hours, in spite of blanket TV coverage. Buses bring them from every corner of the British Isles. Scalpers with illicit tickets tempt them (these shady characters often take taxis to court when arrested, and after being fined, return the same way). Residents near the courts lock their garages. Otherwise they will find some tennis buff has parked his car inside while they were out shopping. Wimbledon streets a mile and more away are solid with parked cars.

It's summer and it's a celebration. Yes, it's a royal game that the British invented, but now it's a game for all the world to play.

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