Wimbledon breathes tennis -- and strict discipline
Wimbledon is a world of its own, a stationary satellite in fixed orbit in a fold in the suburban hills, yet a thousand miles away in space beyond the reach of our everyday realities.
It breathes tennis, lives tennis, dreams tennis. Nothing here is believed to exist outside tennis. Yet it is, of course, sustained by earthly virtues -- sportsmanship and the pursuit of excellence and discipline.
John McEnroe, already fined $1,500 for "conduct unbecoming" and under threat of suspension, walks onto the center court with Raul Ramirez, turns and bows to the Duke and Duchess of Kent, seated in the royal box.
The crowd rises and gives what sounds to me like a thenderous ovation. Daily journalists around me discuss its quality and volume, deciding to describe it as normal. Somebody says he heard some boos. I didn't. It seems to me the crowd has forgiven him, perhaps for the manliness of his immediate acknowledgment of error. They want him to keep his cool and play his own superb tennis.
Ilie Nastase has gone on the first day, a Wimbledon finalist, an artist, a truly great player who has finally fallen total victim to his temperament.
Out on Court 2 Kathy Rinaldi from Florida captures the hearts of the crowd. Fourteen years and a few days old, she becomes the youngest player to win a match on these hallowed courts.
It's a sparkling match, played beautifully. Kathy's opponent, Susan Rollinson of South Africa, gets to match point in her favor in the final set, but hits a forehand drive just about one inch over the baseline to lose it.
We notice that Chris Evert Lloyd has come out on the balcony overlooking the court to watch and applaud.
Out on Court 8 a young man is also making his mark -- Mats Wilander of Sweden , who defeats John Austin of the United States in four sets. He is rated "the new Borg" and serves like it.
Borg, the champion, remains consistently himself. That is, his first matches are wholly inconsistent. He is "trying things," sometimes dangerously. But he is all cold fire and discipline.
We are all disciplined. Arriving at the gates at 5 minutes to 12 on the first day I'm told I cannot enter, it not being 12 o'clock. Only those with circular green badges can enter before the hour. Mine is green but oblong. I can't get in.
Photographers arrive and can't get in. Players arrive and can't get in. A member and his extremely elegant wife arrive. He is allowed in, but as she tries to follow him an arm comes down authoritatively and bars the way.
"But I'm with my husband," wails the lady. "He's a member," the gateman shrugs. "He may come in, madam," he explains, "but not you. Not til 12."
At 12 we surge forward to be allowed in. "It is 12 now," I tell the gateman. "Not officially," he says. "The bell hasn't rung." A bell rings in his hut at 2 minutes past. It's 12 at last. We are allowed to enter.
Meeting the chairman of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club inside -- Air Chief Marshall Sir Brian Burnett -- I ask him about this. He explains, "Well, we've got to clean the place up. After you've had 33,000 people in here it needs concentrated work."
The work shows. Wimbledon is immaculate. You would never know on any day that 33,000 people had tossed away drink cans, papers, paper cups, paper plates, programs, etc., which, I am sorry to report, they have.
But now the paths are clear, the tables clean, and the tea lawns wait with patient grace for the fickle sun of an English June.
A military air is apparent everywhere. Among the attendants are naval chief petty officers, Air Force sergeants, members of the Women's Royal Army Corps, and 90 splendid figures from the Corps of Commissionaires.
Charles Smithers tells me he is 79. "Actually I was in bed when they called me," he says. "They asked me, "Can you come down, Charlie, we're desperately short of men?" Well, you can't let the old corps down." So here he is, straight as a poker, his uniform pressed, his shoes and buttons gleaming, proud of 52 years in "the corps."
Outside, the queues wind back to the tops of the hills, and in the roads the ticket touts are at work. They are arrested frequently by the police and charged with obstruction. Regular taxis wait by the magistrate's court to take them back to Wimbledon.
One of them, a huge man with shoulders like a bull and a belly like a whale, asks the magistrate. "'ow can I'elp being an obstruction? Them sidewalks are full. I'ave to stand in the road. And look at me, put me alone in a plowed field and I'd be an obstruction." He is fined L25 ($50).
Inside the great crowds mill, grinding out excitement. On the center court Susan Mascarin is sacrificed to Martina Navratilova. She is worried about her curtsy to the duke and duchess. She takes only five points in the first set.
Navratilova gives her a game in the second, acting as if her drop shot has suddenly left her. Her acting is not convincing, but the crowd loves the thought behind it.
Black clouds roll up. It rains. The covers go on and umbrellas go up. Play is suspended. But at Wimbledon they know the sun will always shine tomorrow.