For tennis players with lofty reputations they hope to enhance but more desperately want to protect, the early rounds of the Wimbledon championships provided the most exquisite form of torture.

"Its very difficult. This tournament is very special in the first week," said Guillermo Vilas, one of the 10 seeded men who were upset in the first five days of Wimbledon's 102nd year. Vilas has won the Australian Open on grass, the French and U.S. opens on clay, but Wimbledon only on celluloid -- in the recently released and roundly panned movie, "Players."

In real life, Vilas never has gone beyond the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. In real life, you do not play Dean-Paul Martin, tennis-playing son of the wellknown crooner, on Judgment Day at Centre Court, as Vilas does in the film.

In the last generation, you played Rod laver or Ken Rosewall or one of those other exceptional Australians. These days you play Bjorn Borg or Jimmy Connors, for Wimbledon is a tournament where only the strong survive. John McEnroe, who was seeded second to Boeg this year, will attest to that after losing today, becoming the highest-priced head to fall in an extraordinary week of upsets.

Vilas, who made his reputation on clay courts, prepared for four weeks on grass to win the Australian title at Melbourne in January. But he lost here in the second round for the third consecutive year -- this time to Tim Wilkinsorn, 19, an eager and acrobatic North Carolinian, on the difficult turf of Court No. 3.

"This is not a tournament that you can get the feeling that easy. If you play in the other major championships, you practice on the same courts you play your matches, you move around, you can feel the atmosphere. Here it is different," said the Argentinian, trying to explain the palpably unsettling sensation that makes favored players feel uncharacteristically edgy when they play hungry underdogs at Wimbledon.

Huge crowds, clogging every walkway, pressing against the green canvas stop-netting of the outside courts . . . squealing schoolchildren climbing walls, seizing every possible vantage point, mobbling players in quest of autographs . . . print reporters in search of scoops, making the top players feel like residents of a fishbowl . . . the carpricious bounces of grass courts . . . weather conditions that can change six times in a set, from sunshine to gray mist and dead calm to swirling breeze.

All these factors give Wimbledon a unique and pervasive sense of nervous tension, an electricity that hangs over the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club as surely as the rustling vines clinging to the dark green walls.

"The atmosphere has a way of escalating against a layer here in ways it never does anyplace else," couturier Ted Tinling, tennis man for all seasons, once observed. "Very good players have gone into mental freezes and had runs of games slide away from them without ever really realizing what was happening."

Said Vilas, "There are some players like myself who need to warm up before the match. I need some space, and some time. At Wimbledon, you just have to wait in the tea room or the locker room. You cannot go out, because of the crowds. Suddenly, they come and say the match before yours is two sets to one, so you just warm up and then you go out and play. It is different. I think it is a very nice tournament, but it suits some players and others it doesn't."

Wimbledon always suited Arthur Ashe. It is his favorite tournament. He won the championship in 1975, the crowning glory of a distinguished career. But he has lost in the first round the past two years.

"The first week is definitely the toughest. That's when the guys who are supposed to do well feel the butterflies, because the guys who have nothing to lose come gunning for them," said Ashe."wimbledon comes only once a year. You wait 50 weeks for it. Then if you lose in the first week on an outside court, that kills you more than if you lost a five-set match in the final."

Ashe, who at 35 thought he had a real change of winning againg, was the first seed to lose this year, starting what turned into an epidemic. He played dreadfully and lost in three straight sets to Australian Chris Kachel who was described in the next morning's Daily Telegraph as "a man who has heretofore not impinged himself on the tennis world to any great extent." That is the polite way of saying that Kachel is not in Ashe's class.

Ashe lost on court No.2 the club's most notorious "upset court," on a gloomy day when play was interrupted by rain. Not very good for finding one's rhythm.

Vitas Gerulaitis the No.4 seed and a semifinalist the past two years, followed Ashe onto that court and was beaten in five sets at nightfally by Pat DuPre, the No.1 tennis player of Birmingham, Ala. A garbage truck backed up to within 20 feet of the court and noisily took on a load of rubbish during the fifth set, adding to already plentiful distractions and prompting one irreverent wit to say, "He's taking Vitas out with the trash."

Court No.2 claimed its third victim, Sue Barker, early on the second day. And McEnroe lost there today, to Tim Sue Barker, early on the second day.

A BBC man calls it "claustrophobic corner" because the court is in the busiest section of the club separated by only a canvas, a hedge, a rose bed and a busy bonbon stand from the bustling main concourse, where thousands of people mill about studying the results board, following the progress of Centre and No.1 court matches on electronic scoreboards, ducking under parasols to consume strawberries and cream.

There are seats for only 1,650 spectators around Court No 2, but hundreds more frequently cram their way in and stand, filling the walkways on either side until the canvas sidewalls almost collapse under the strain.