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Previewing a Borg-less Wimbledon

This great festival of lawn tennis, the first and still most prestigious tournament of all, opens today to the rumble of distant thunder.

Bjorn Borg, five times winner and six consecutive times a finalist, will not compete because the Grand Prix rules say he would have to play through the qualifying rounds due to his relative inactivity this year.

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Ivan Lendl, Czech pretender to the tennis throne, will not compete because he believes grass courts do not suit his game.

John McEnroe is here to defend his title, but he still awaits the invitation traditionally extended to the champion for membership in the All-England club.

Many other top players are made uncomfortable by the aura that surrounds the tournament, which they feel is a mix of good intentions, militarist's discipline , amateurism, and traditional social distinctions they do not understand.

Yet all who do come agree about this: Wimbledon still is the supreme test.

Here's a quote from McEnroe about Lendl's absence: ''He can't be No. 1 if he doesn't play Wimbledon. It's the No. 1 tournament.''

India's best tennis player and 1981 Wimbledon quarterfinalist Vijay Amritraj, who like Borg was not prepared to commit himself to 10 Grand Prix tournaments this year, accepted the qualifying requirement with good grace.

''Wimbledon is the best tournament in the world,'' said Amritraj. ''It's the one in which I just have to play.''

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But can Wimbledon stay on top if top stars desert? Can it stay on top if the whole of the rest of the world goes over to clay or concrete, leaving Wimbledon alone with its fickle grass? Can it stay on top if players feel the attitude of the British tennis establishment is out of date?

These are serious questions. And they'll be answered mainly by the quality of this year's tournament.

How McEnroe handles the tournament -- and how the establishment handles the temperamental American who has had so many disputes here over the years with officials, press, and fans -- also will be a key.

Tennis is never predictable, but most experts expect a McEnroe-Jimmy Connors final. Connors is in exceptionally good form and has just beaten John in the final of a pre-Wimbledon tournament at Queen's Club in London.

But there's a real ''wild card'' in the pack -- 17-year-old Mats Wilander of Sweden who recently became the youngest ever French Open champion, beating the record of his countryman, Borg, by a few months.

Mats is seeded seventh here after McEnroe, Connors, Americans Vitas Gerulaitis and Sandy Mayer, South Africa's Johan Kriek, and Gene Mayer, Sandy's younger brother. After that come, in order, Paul McNamara, Australia; Andres Gomez, Ecuador; Yannick Noah, France; Brian Teacher, USA; Mark Edmondson, Australia; Raul Ramirez, Mexico; and Brian Gottfried and Roscoe Tanner, both USA.

For the first time in quite a while Great Britain has a seed in Buster Mottram, who just made it in the No. 16 position. And it is perhaps indicative of the way thoughts are moving in the tennis game that Buster, giving his views in the latest issue of the British magazine ''Tennis World,'' says he thinks it inevitable that grass will eventually disappear as a tennis surface, even at Wimbledon. The whole game needs all-year, all-weather, world-wide tennis surfaces, he says.

This year the women are surrounded by less controversy than the men -- and may well provide the highest standards of matches in the two weeks of competition continuing through July 4.

Seeded No. 1 and 2 are Martina Navratilova and defending champion Chris Evert Lloyd. Next come Americans Tracy Austin, Andrea Jaeger; Hana Mandlikova of Czechoslovakia; Wendy Turnbull, Australia; Pam Shriver, USA; and Mima Jausovec of Yugoslavia.

Mandlikova, who made a tremendous impression here last year on the way to the final but seemed overawed on the big day, promises: ''I'll do better this time.'' But she has lost her French and Australian titles to Navratilova and will have to do very much better to get as far even as she did before.

Evonne Goolagong Cawley, always a great Wimbledon favorite, is back again this year. The 1971 and 1980 champion has played only a couple of tournaments this season, but the grass surface here suits her game and she is more than likely to do better than her No. 16 ranking suggests.

The other women's seeds (No. 9 through 15) are Sylvia Hanika, West Germany; Barbara Potter, Bettina Bunge, six-time champion Billie Jean King, Anne Smith and Andrea Leand, all USA; and Virginia Ruzici, Romania.

In the mixed doubles the top seeds are defending champions Frew McMillan of South Africa and Betty Stove of the Netherlands, followed by the 1980 champion brother-sister tandem of John and Tracy Austin. In the men's doubles it's McEnroe and Peter Fleming at the top, and in the women's, Navratilova and Shriver.

It must never be forgotten that Wimbledon is a complete tournament -- singles , doubles, men's, women's, mixed, boys, girls, veterans -- and one that focuses the hopes, ambitions, and pride of thousands of players all around the world.

It is more than 100 years now since Wimbledon began. So one hopes that the thunder clouds will disperse and the air clear and freshen, and that the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club will move not only with the times but toward the players.

For surely this must at all costs be preserved as not only the oldest tennis tournament in the world but the greatest.

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