Arthur Ashe was about to repair to afternoon tea at the stately Hurlingham Club, site of the International Club's annual garden party on the eve of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, when an elderly woman asked for his autograph. "I have a bet on you," she said.

"But I'm not playing, I'm injured," said Ashe, who has been suffering for six weeks from eye ailments - first conjunctivtis and now iritis - an inflammation of the iris that has left his right eye a nasty pool of blood behind his sunglasses. This and slower-than-expected recuperation from heel surgery in March will keep him out of the centennial Wimbledon beginning Monday at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

The woman, momentarily stunned, recovered. "But then why are you here?" she asked.

"I just came to see the queen," said Ashe, who as winner of the gentlemen's singles in 1975 will take part in their parade of champions" on center court, receiving a commemorative medal from the Duke of Kent in ceremonies opening the centenary.

"On, jolly good," said the woman, enthralled. "So lovely to hear an American with such regard for tradition."

Later, over strong, hot tea and petits-fours in the ornate Hurlingham clubhouse, which dates to 1760, Ashe said, "I'm very anti-royalty but very pro-British royalty. I like the idea of it. It's terrific - the ceremonies, rites, ritual, the perfect sense of timing. I eat it up. The British are the greatest at staging ceremonies."

Hurlingham is part of the Wimbledon ceremony, and even though Ashe is not playing for only the third time since 1963, he wanted to be part of it.

"This is the world series, the Super Bowl, this tournament," Ashe said. "If you can't play, you feel left out."

So he strolled the splendidly landscaped grounds of Hurlingham, founded in 1869 as a club for pigeon shooting. That sport was abolished in 1905, polo in 1939, but tennis, croquet, putting, squash, walking dogs and feeding the wildfowl in the club's picturesque, willow-lined pond remain favored activities.

Ashe's wife of three months, photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy, had a wonderful time capturing the scene on film: the central band of the Royal Air Force playing a medley of show tunes under the enormous maple that fronts the white-pillared main portico - the sipping of Pimms Cup, incessant "lovely to see you's," and other trappings of gentility enjoyed by the British upper-middle class at leisure on Sunday afternoon - the men in three-piece pinstriped suits with roses in their lapels and moustaches as neatly clipped as their accents - the signs that politely inform us, "Prams and karicots may not leave the paths and drifes except in the children's tea area."

Bleak, chilly weather held down the numbers and encouraged tweeds and raincoats rather than summer dresses and bonnets. It has been that kind of summer in Britain, as evidenced by the multitude of buds rather than blossoms in Hurlingham's plentiful rosebeds, which are usually ablaze with colorful blooms at this time of year.