Monday, June 23
The opening match on Centre Court is traditionally awarded to the men's defending champion—The Holder—but whatever scheduling follows depends on the whims of a wise though capricious referee. There was, then, a patch of irony that Bjorn Borg was succeeded upon the velvet greensward by Ilie Nastase. But for the demons which reside between Nastase's rabbit ears, he, not Borg, might well have become the nonpareil. He was, perhaps unbelievably, quicker than Borg and every bit the athlete. All too often, though, Nastase's worst would get the best of him, and at those times when it mattered most—Davis Cup or Wimbledon—the threads would unravel.
His last chance for true glory came in 1976. But in the Wimbledon final that year, the Borg-child, barely 20, whipped the favored Nastase in straight sets. Ever since, it has not been the contest for Nastase—only the stage. How delighted he was last August when he got to play John McEnroe at night in the U.S. Open! There is about Nastase now the sad aspect of an old opera star cadging drinks in some saloon by belting out Melancholy Baby—The Entertainer.
Borg, of course, is never swayed from the task at hand. Today he beat Ismail El Shafei in three sets, his 29th victory in a row here. The Egyptian is 32, pudgy and a part-timer, but once before, in 1974, he beat Borg at Wimbledon. The future champion was just 18 then, baffled by his new fame and the screeching schoolgirls, harried by an exhausting schedule. One sees Borg now, coming off court after that defeat, his ferret eyes spiritless, haunted. He used to give away such matches when he was tired and wanted to go home. These days his campaign is too well planned for him to suffer any such human failure.
The British find him terribly tedious—this first day a scalper opined that his trade would be hurt if the "boring" Borg made it to the finals—but they do give him his due. His autobiography is in the bookshops here, there was a prime-time TV hour devoted to his life and reports of his imminent marriage are as unrelenting as the rain. So the crowd was relieved to have Nastase for a dessert course, and he did not disappoint them, except perhaps in the sense that he routed one of their own, the journeyman John Feaver. Nastase imitated a skater on the slippery turf; he fell to his knees to escape the rays of the sun, which broke through just as it set; he remonstrated with the new electric serve-line indicator—and with all the laughing and gesticulating, he was never mean. But then, he was never threatened, either.
Tuesday, June 24
It rained again much of the afternoon, and there was virtually no play before 6:30. Yet the 28,103 fans, on hand since the 2 p.m. witching hour, milled about patiently under their brollies. Many stayed out in the showers, clinging to their wet seats (or standing spots) lest they lose them when merely dank, playable weather returned. As we know from the American clichè-ization of Wimbledon, these gentlefolk of Britain are mad for tennis.
Not really. It is just tennis at Wimbledon. Elsewhere in England, there are few public courts and almost no indoor facilities, and in the schools, boys are all but discouraged from taking up the game—battles, you must remember, are won on playing fields, not courts. All the best male players are inbred, coming from tennis families.
Two such old-line stalwarts squared off in the first round: Buster Mottram, the top-ranked Briton, and John Lloyd, who held that honor before he became more devoted to being a husband than a player. The sad part about this confrontation, this battle of Britain, is how little the natives cared. Not long ago it would have been held on Centre Court. Then, the headlines would have screamed in despair as England's best went out of the tournament: BLACK DAY FOR BRITAIN, that sort of stuff.
But today, Mottram and Lloyd were shunted to Court 2, and virtually all those in attendance were females, there for beauty not for country. The Gorgeous Lloyd is all the more an attraction since he married a real live champeen, and he and Chris have become a national valentine. The missus watched from the Players' Tea Room balcony. Below, most of the little girls wore LLOYD IS LLOVELY buttons. Poor dears: he lost to Mottram 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 without ever so much as breaking serve or expression.
"Let's face it, we're a third-rate tennis nation now," says Roger Taylor, a handsome idol before Lloyd, the best British player in a generation or more. "I tried to get an indoor facility built near here, but it was voted down solidly. They voted against tennis in Wimbledon! But it is not all the climate or the courts. Our players lack singlemindedness, guts, the killer instinct—call it what you like."
Worse, Wimbledon, that great international festival, is becoming too American. Of the 128 players in the Gentlemen's Singles, 50—39%—are Yanks. In the Ladies', 51 of the 96—53%—are from the U.S. In just a few years, the U.S. press contingent has increased threefold. Some apostates say that the best food on the hallowed grounds is in the NBC tent. As you know, the Beatles moved to Hollywood or New York, London Bridge was installed in Arizona, the Queen Mary in Long Beach. One has this horrible rainy-day nightmare of some developer in Florida or even Texas, God forbid, building a planned condo community. Ye Old Villa Rancho Estates, and buying Wimbledon, Centre Court and all, as the showpiece.
Wednesday, June 25
Only 96 matches behind schedule, but it did not rain. Wednesday's child is....
Andrea Jaeger, yust 15, the youngest seed ever (No. 14), all pigtails and precision, braces and baseline. Here we go again. She won 4 and 2.
Scott Davis, 17, tall, California, top seeded in the juniors, came through qualifying to the main draw. Opponent: Corrado Barazzutti, alias The Little Soldier, 24th in the world. He and a rude coterie of his Italian countrymen raucously cheer and taunt. When not in Rome, do as the Romans do. The Little Soldier chats with a girl in the stands while Davis is preparing to serve. He hits a return 150 feet, over several fences. "That didn't bother me," Davis says afterward, "but I knew he was doing it to bother me, and that bothered me." Davis didn't win, but he didn't take the bait, either. Tab the kid.
Ramesh Krishnan, 19, short, son of India's greatest player, Ramanathan Krishnan. Same feather-duster strokes. Father, portly now, watches silently. Ladies in saris, diamonds on their faces, watch silently. Ramesh beats Bill Scanlon, '79 quarterfinalist. Scanlon, losing, does insulting mimicry of Indians. With dignity, Krishnan family pretends not to notice.
And, nostalgia buffs, Pam Shriver. U.S. Open finalist way back in '78. Posted a 100-1 shot here. Unseeded. And she is still only 17. After that magical Open, Pam went back to prep school, but when she graduated last June, she promptly hurt her serving shoulder. Then tonsils. Then confidence. "She's fallen a long way," says her coach, Don Candy, "and you don't fall that far and get up unscathed." She says, "It's tough to live with certain things when you're not finding them again." Like what? "Like success."
It is almost eight o'clock under the northern sun of summer solstice before Shriver's first-round match even begins. So stylish she is, so unlike the other young women players. Glamorous and leggy as a woman, animated and pouty as a girl. "Sugar!" she cries in disgust. You're beautiful when you're angry, baby. She moves, serves and volleys, mixes it up like a pitcher: she's an Oriole fan, knows good pitching. But she is also..."awful," says Candy. Still, Shriver is ahead 3-1 in the third, at 8:52, when her German opponent begs off because of darkness. Shriver and Wimbledon are through three days and still not through the first round.
Thursday, June 26
Ordinarily, Billie Jean King's press conferences are the high work of that low art. Often, it seems, her playing is mere prelude; indeed, so commanding can she be in this theater that when a few years ago she started to slide downhill and she and the victor would be brought in together to see the press, it was obvious that Billie Jean was going to whip her conqueror at this game, if not the other. Soon, the winner would be all but ignored, as the great lady of the verbal volleys held sway. Today, however, Billie Jean beat Anne Smith in two uneven sets, but her press conference was clearly a cursory early-round performance. She will do better next week.
Right now, Wimbledon is depressing and desultory. Every tournament possesses a certain dynamic—upsets, for example, tend to come in bunches here. But there has been so much rain, and today a great hailstorm as well, that the whole enterprise has lost its way. The mere matter of playing squeezes out that of winning and losing. The players, packed together for hours in their Team Room, have grown stale and fidgety, are a bit short of temper as they stare woefully at the heavens. "I came 7,000 miles from my home for this?" asks Tom Gorman of Seattle and Greater Mount Saint Helens.
Oh well, just before Jupiter Pluvius struck again, Shriver finished off her win at 6-1.
Friday, June 27
Terry Rocavert of Sydney, 112th in the world, was to play John McEnroe, No. 2, on Court 3. The courtesy car that Wimbledon provides for all contestants (even the Terry Rocaverts) did not show at his flat in Bayswater. He called a cab, and then his wife Kaye left to buy plane tickets for them to go to the U.S. tomorrow. The taxi got lost, and Rocavert arrived just in time to rush onto the court, without any practice.
Surprisingly, Rocavert won the first set 6-4 and began to get interested. Court 3 was especially soft from the rains and surrounded by crowd distractions. Also, McEnroe has become a shadow of the young master who once could send even Borg reeling from the court. Probably he has played too much. Certainly he has lost the magnificent slice serve. But McEnroe won the second set and moved up 5-2 in the third. Rocavert all but quit. Then, looking about at the swelling crowd that came to see him—a curiosity—he thought he'd make an effort again. "Just try to win some games," he said to himself. He won the third set in a tie-breaker to go up 2-1, and in the fourth set tie-breaker, he led McEnroe 2-1 with two serves coming. Rocavert was in control of the match. But he botched the next two points, and it was all over. McEnroe won the tie-breaker and the fifth set with one service break, when Rocavert twice double-faulted.
Why was it so? Why? In ability, in the way they hit a ball, there is little difference among the 128 men here at the top of the world. And Lord, does Terry Rocavert, No. 112, look the champion! Lean and sturdy, a winning smile, handsome, a young Kirk Douglas. He speaks well. Clean strokes, fine serve. He started at the game when he was six, but now, at only 25, he is preparing to quit after this year. Why? "I wasn't nervous at any stage of the match," he says, "but then at no stage did I convince myself that I could win. That's the way I am. Funny enough, I always play best against the best players, but in the end, I lose. Oh, I have a lot of good losses. For me to play as well as I did today proves that I can play that well. But I can only do it once or twice a year. McEnroe, those guys, they do it all the time."
"You have to be a certain kind of person to fit into certain things, like all this. They just have the ambition to do it, but I don't understand what that is or how they got it, because I don't have it. I wish I did. I've tried to get it. I love the life and I love tennis, but whatever that thing is, I don't have it, so now I'll have to find something else to do with my life."
But if you had won today?
"Yes, that might have changed my thinking. But you see, I didn't win. I didn't have the confidence to win. And now, this match is all going to be forgotten very quickly."
Saturday, June 28
Eight years ago, Stan Smith won Wimbledon. He was 25 and ascending, surely, to legendary levels. He was already the U.S. Open champion, a Davis Cup hero. But it didn't work out. There were to be no more major titles, and Smith quickly fell back into the pack. By 1978 he wasn't even seeded at Wimbledon. There were reasons, notably a shoulder injury and the general shift of the game from grass, where Smith's big serve ruled, to slower venues. "Even the balls are slower now at Wimbledon," he says. But not as an alibi. There has never been any of that from Smith.
Most athletes have a painful enough time being phased out by age. To reach the zenith at 25, to slide back yet still to be so visible, to be playing second fiddle, to be trying, that requires an unusual kind of manliness. Perhaps the hardest part is that people keep asking you, Whatever happened to you? "You just can't dwell on it or it'll really get to you," Smith says. "It's been a real test of character to go through it, and I've been interested to see how I've reacted to it myself. I've also been interested to see how other people have reacted to me."
He has enjoyed a relatively better year in 1980—age 33, married now, one child, another due at Christmastime. He has climbed back to 18th in the world rankings and was even seeded again—No. 15—here. He won his first two rounds and today faced Brian Gottfried, himself unseeded for the first time in five years. On a windy outer court, No. 13. Gottfried battered him 2, 3 and 2.
This same chilly day another Wimbledon champion, Borg, won his 31st straight match here, tying Rod Laver's record. But Kipling's famous quotation that the players see as they walk onto Centre Court speaks not only of victory. but of triumph and disaster alike, of learning to "treat those two impostors just the same." Many players lose here (and lose well), and a few win—fewer still can do both with style. As the first week ended, Borg had tied Laver's record. But Stan Smith tied Kipling. And that is more to shoot for.
Sunday, JUNE 29
The sun is not out, but at least, it isn't raining!