Graf, Lendl pose threat to defenders as Wimbledon gets under way. Navratilova after record 6th women's title in row; Becker seeks 3rd straight men's crown

Each summer at this time Wimbledon takes its traditional place in the tapestry of the English sporting scene alongside the Royal Ascot horse races, international ``test'' cricket matches (this year versus Pakistan), and world rowing at Henley on Thames. The famous tennis championship on the courts of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club always produces plenty of drama - and this 101st edition should be no exception. In fact, the 1987 tournament, which begins today and runs through July 5, looks like perhaps the most ``open'' Wimbledon of recent years.

West Germany's Boris Becker, going for his third title here in succession, is top-seeded in the men's singles, above current world No. 1 Ivan Lendl.

Lendl, who lost in straight sets in the final a year ago, is determined to upset Becker this year - assuming that both get that far, which itself is by no means certain. Ivan has been putting on muscle. He has also been coached by Tony Roche, the great Australian grass court doubles player. He actually had to play Roche in a strange warm-up tournament in Scotland a week ago, where rain nearly spoiled the whole show. Lendl won, but only narrowly.

Becker, meanwhile, beat Jimmy Connors two sets to one in a splendid match on grass in the final of the traditional tourney at Queen's Club, London.

In the women's singles, top-seeded Martina Navratilova is seeking a sixth successive win, which would break the record of five she shares with Suzanne Lenglen (1919-23), and her eighth overall, which would match the mark established by Helen Wills Moody between 1927 and 1938. In her path is the amazing 18-year old, Steffi Graf, who beat Martina on the slower clay of Paris in the French Open final, and indeed has been unbeaten so far in 39 matches this year.

But the brilliant young West German is not used to grass and has played no warm-up tournaments here, preferring to practice on grass at Wimbledon four hours every day. She is seeded to eventually meet Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina, who was a semifinalist last year, and if she wins that match Steffi will find herself playing 1986 runner-up Hana Mandlikova of Czechoslovakia for a place in this year's final.

In the other half of the draw, assuming that things go according to form, Navratilova should face her arch rival, three-time Wimbledon winner Chris Evert, in the semis.

There is considerable regret that John McEnroe has pulled out. While nobody likes his short fuse, almost everybody agrees with Becker, who, when he heard that John would not be playing, said at once, ``It's a pity. Tennis really needs John McEnroe.''

This is particularly true of grass-court tennis, where the top players need not only power and technique but brilliant reflexes. It's a game for flair, and of that the John McEnroe of 1980-85 had plenty.

One cannot imagine a better tennis treat than watching McEnroe in his prime against the youthful and tremendously powerful Becker.

As it is, Boris appears likely to meet either American David Pate or Yugoslavia's Slodoban Zivojinovic before possibly again battling it out with Connors in the quarterfinals and/or third-seeded Mats Wilander of Sweden in the semis.

Those in Lendl's half of the draw who must be considered include fourth-seeded Stefan Edberg and his fellow Swede Joachim Nystrom, 1985 runner-up Kevin Curren of the United States, and Miloslav Mecir, the powerful Czech.

Among other players scattered throughout the draw who could be dangerous are two-time former champion Connors (seeded 7th), Frenchmen Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah, and Andr'es G'omez of Ecuador. Many experts also like the chances of Australia's Pat Cash, who is seeded only 11th but is back in top form and is always a threat on grass.

At Wimbledon, one never can tell. Seeds are scattered so frequently, one wonders if that is why they are called seeds.

Navratilova, though, aims to avoid such upsets and to win all three titles - singles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles. She just failed to do this last year, teaming with Pam Shriver to win the women's doubles for the fifth time in six years, but missing out in the mixed when she and partner Heinz Gunthardt lost the final to Ken Flach and Kathy Jordan.

This year she is again paired with Shriver, while her partner in the mixed will be Paul McNamee, with whom she won that title in 1985.

But even as Navratilova shoots for that elusive ``triple,'' as well as the record books, the spotlight is shifting toward Graf. Is the precocious teen-ager on the verge of supplanting Martina as this tournament's brightest female star?

Steffi won her first professional tournament in April last year when she was not quite 17. Since then she has won 92 out of 95 singles matches and 39 in a row this year. Navratilova has defeated her twice, but narrowly, and has lost to her twice. Mandlikova has beaten her once only - also very narrowly.

Last March in Florida, Graf beat both Evert and Navratilova in the same tournament. If she has learned how to handle her game on grass - as she insists that she has - most experts here would take her to win this one, too.

The grass may be unusually fast and fickle this year, for England has experienced some extraordinary spring weather. The courts have of course been carefully tended all year - nobody plays on the main ones in between these Wimbledon tournaments - and they are covered as necessary. But it is the surface underneath the grass that makes the difference, and that difference is often dictated by the sequences of rain and shine.

Becker seems to enjoy these fickle surfaces more than most, and his immense strength and athleticism give him an edge. But he doesn't seem quite the young player he was - and if not it could finally be Lendl's year.

Whatever happens, it should be an enthralling touranment.

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