Wimbledon -- high-stakes showcase of reflex tennis
Great things are at stake here in Wimbledon's 1983 All-England Champion-ships , which begin their traditional fortnight today. At stake are the trophies the best have to win to crown their claim to excellence. . .the future of grass-court tennis. . .the place of sportsmanship in this now much-monied game.
Prize money this year has been greatly increased - (STR)66,000 sterling ($100 ,000) to the winner of the men's singles, (STR)60,000 to the winner of the women's. Dozens of other sums have risen proportionately. Increased too are the expectations of the amateur tennis world here which profited last year to the tune of (STR)1.5 million.
Amateur tennis now depends heavily on the professionals. They set the standards. With the game so fast and the rewards for winning so enormous what standards of behavior will they set?
Jimmy Connors starts as the favorite to retain the title he won last year. His chief rival, John McEnroe, is having problems with one of his shoulders. There is a feeling he may not last through the championships, either because of his physical condition or because of some final explosion of frustration.
Ivan Lendl is of course the leading dark horse in the race. His recent form has been uncertain. He has little love for Wimbledon, for grass, for officialdom , for amateur organizations. But he is capable of great tennis and knows he must win here if he is ever to claim to be the best.
Among the women, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd stand out as almost certain finalists. They have played for the championship three of the last five years, including last year, when Martina won in three sets.
Navratilova has played some devastating games in her warm-up matches - powerful, relentless, merciless. Evert Lloyd, the reigning US, Australian, and French champion, has herself been at the top of her game - cool, classy, efficient. A victory here would make her only the third woman in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles concurrently, and the first since Australian Margaret Court in 1970.
For Britain one woman in particular, Jo Durie, has shown herself to be a player on the way up, despite a decisive loss to Navratilova at Eastbourne last week.
Although unseeded in Paris on clay, Durie thrust aside Kathy Rinaldi, Pam Shriver, and Tracy Austin to reach the semifinals. She is a tall, amusing young woman, whose philosophy is summed up in an answer she gave under pressure to a sports reporter: ''I can't see any reason why you can't be a champion and a nice human being.''
The sentimental favorite is once again Bille Jean King, who has won 20 Wimbledon titles of one variety or another and is playing extremely well. A year ago, playing in her 21st Wimbledon, she turned in a surprising performance, reaching the semifinals, before losing to Evert Lloyd.
Watching Connors tame McEnroe at Queens Club in London in the final of the Stella Artois warmup tournament, many felt that they had rarely seen such efficient power displayed on a grass court. Old-timers shook their heads and remembered Ellsworth Vines.
McEnroe, however, is not yet playing at his best. The big question here is whether or not John will contain his temper if things go wrong for him and what the new referee, Alan Mills, will do about it if he doesn't.
Only one Wimbledon umpire that we know of, a former sea captain called ''Trader'' Horn, has cooled McEnroe after being sworn at by the young star. ''Look,'' he is reputed to have said to John, ''I was at sea for 42 years and for every cuss word you know for me, I know 10 for you.''
But now that McEnroe has reached the top, even such an approach as Trader Horn's may be out of court.
McEnroe himself is determined to play it straight and to show himself to be of true championship caliber. And a true Wimbledon champion at that.
Many people do not understand the difficulties players of this class must face at Wimbledon.
The game has become not only more powerful, but also faster. It is essentially a game of explosively fast reactions. Incredible shots are played as pure reflex actions and cannot be explained any better than a player's personal reactions to them can be.
Then when competing on grass in England the player has to contend with subtle changes in the reactions of the court itself. The grass which favors spin one day may put a premium on pace the next. The weather may be fickle, the temperature change in half an hour, and the atmospheric pressure rise or fall.
There may be bad bounces. And with the ball traveling at such speeds, the very fact that eyes do not pan like cameras can explain bad calls.
On top of this there is the fact that tennis is developing specialists who play at their best only on certain surfaces, whether clay, cement, synthetics, or whatever. But they cannot claim to be the very best unless they can also play here at Wimbledon in the first and most prestigious grass-court championship in the world. It is tantalizing.
Some people have questioned how long this can last. One day perhaps, they say , some new surface will be used for all the supreme championships and Wimbledon will lose its appeal.
One doubts it. Wimbledon is not only a tennis tournament, it is an occasion. A duchess in the royal box. . .overnight queues for tickets... scalpers. . . buskers. . . strawberries and cream. . . .
And the names on the trophies. . .Helen Wills Moody, Suzanne Lenglen, Maria Bueno, Rod Laver, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry and the man who won five in a row, Bjorn Borg. Yes, indeed, great things are at stake here in the next two weeks.