Jimmy Connors, his former manager Bill Riordan used to say, plays his best tennis when he is the villain. His adrenalin flows when the crowd treats him like Killer Kowalski.

Yesterday and part of today it seemed that Connors wanted it that way. He was jeered, whistled and loudly booed when he walked onto the centre court at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for his first round match against English lefthander Richard Lewis, in the Wimbledon Championships.

That was the crowd's expression of indignation for Connors' snub of Monday's "Parade of Champion," when all living past singles winners were invited back to receive commemorative medals in ceremonies opening the centenary Wimbledon.

Connors smiled when the gallery hooted him, and again when they cheered his first error. He looked up at the competitors' guest box, to his mother and a couple of friends, and grinned sheepishly.

An hour and 37 minutes later, Connors, the No. 1 seed and 2-to-1 betting favorite to recapture the title he won in 1974, strode off, a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 winner. He had played well, uninhibited on his two-fisted backhand by the bruised right-thumb that received so much pretournament attention.

Harold Soloman of Silver Spring, Md., was the only seeded player beaten today, and that was no surprise.

Soloman, seeded No. 16, was eliminated by muscular Steve Dochery, an Australian who now lives in Portland, Ore., 6-4,4-6, 7-5, 7-5, in the resumption of a match halted by darkness at one set apiece Monday evening.

Soloman, 24, has only played at Wimbledon three ties and has lost in the first round each year. His persistent baseline game, based on hustle, retreiving and attacking shots from the backcourt, is badly suited to grass courts.

Chris Evert, he defending champion and No. 1 seed, opened the women's singles by beating Ruta Gerulaitis on the centre court, 6-0, 6-3.

Seven of the eight seeded women who played today scored straight-set victories. Only No. 8 Kerry Melville Reid was troubled, taken to the edge of the ledge by 20-year-old lefthander Mary Carillo, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5.

It should be noted that Connor bowed courteously today, as is the custom on entering the center court, to the royal box where the Duchess of Goucester sat, even as the boos cascaded down on him. (she left after the first game.) He applauded Lewis' best shots and was generally well-behaved during the match, impolite only in the ferocity with which he flogged winners.

Afterward,at a packed press conference, he did his best to atone for the intense animosity he had created. Apparently, he simply did not realize how much his failure to attend the anniversary ceremony would offend the British.

While 41 former singles champions of the 52 who are still alive, many of whom had come thousands of miles, received their medals from the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Connors had been on an outside court, practicing with Ilie Nastase. This, the British felt, was an unpardonable slap at a regal occasion, and the All-England Club committee met and decided Connors should not be given his medal because of his "act of extreme discourtesy."

The wrath of tradition-loving England tumbled on Connors with full fury, from radio, television and newspapers. He had turned the English into mad dogs.

"You cannot teach manners nor a sense of occasion to the ignorant," commented the London Daily Mirror.

"We shall not find it easy to forgive his arrogant and insulting failure to take his place in the lineup of champions past at Wimbledon's centenary ceremony . . . If he did not want to parade, he could have gone somewhere other than an outside court to practice. Say Wichita," added the Daily Mail. "Champion in Disgrace," trumpeted the bold, black, banner headline on the front page of the Daily Express.

Such reaction was not confined to the sensational press. Even the BBC expressed its shock and disapproval in strong terms. The heat, as they say, was on.

Gloria Connors, whose maternal instincts are more highly developed than most and sometimes take strange twists, stepped forward as protectress of her son. "It was all my fault. I should have told the organizers that he wouldn't be there, but I forgot," she was quoted in the front-page lead story in the early editions of the evening news. She went on to say that he missed the ceremonies because he was caring for his thumb.

Even players who get along well with him were shocked at Connors. "I think everybody felt the same way as the British; we were surprised," said Dick Stockton. "How could he not go? That was a terrible thing. I don't understand what his reason could possible be. I read waht his mother said, and that's the biggest lot of rot I've ever heard."

Just how much the British wanted to hate Connors today was summed up in the remarks of a newspaper photographer who phoned his editor after the first set of the match with Lewis.

"Connors was booed on court," he said. "I got some shots of ladies in them members' box, closeup staff. I don't know how it will come out; it's very difficult to photograph booing. But Connors got hit in the crotch with a ball and went down. I got that - it might be good."

On the court, Connors largely defused the great display of displeasure by his reasonable deportment during the match, and observed that the spectators grew increasingly less frosty as the match went on. Obviously, their initial anger was vented by the boisterous reception they had given him.

"I think that about took care or it. Yah, that was about it," Connors saying to the attending committeeman, "ask them if they can keep the questions to tennis."

"I can't let that (the crowd's enmity) worry me. I'm out there to play tennis, No. 1. I've had the pleasure of playing in front of both crowds, for me and against me. I would like to have the fans in my corner, no doubt about it, but I still have to go out there and play. I can't let it affect me."

He was asked if, in retrospect, he had regrets about shunning the "Parade of Champions."

"Believe me, if I could have been there, I'd have been there," he said. ". . . I saw the doctor yesterday morning and he wanted to see the thumb right after I practiced, so that's where I went. That's the extent of it.

"Maybe it's my fault. Maybe I should have gone up and said, 'look, I've got this to do . . .' But I had an appointment that I thought I should keep. You never know.

"That's the breaks," he said, sighting. "It's a tough situation for me to be put in and for me to talk about right now because the tennis is on; the tournament has started. You can't bring back yesterday. Whether I would like to or not, you can't bring it back."

Someone asked if he would like to receive the medal that had been struck for him.

"They're not going to give it to me. I read that," he said.

But would you like to get it?

"Well, nobody else is going to get it if it's got my name on it," he said, sounding like the brash Jimmy Connors we all know.

Will you ask the committee if you can have the medal? "Well, I feel that if they want to give it to me, they will. Is it my place to ask?"

Would you apologize?"

What have I been saying here for three minutes?" Connors retorted.

But would you apologize formally to the All-England Club, an inquisitor persisted.

"That's pressure question," Connors said, hesitating. "I'd have to think about that, about the whole situation from yesterday that's some out over the last night and day . . .

"If I do, it'll be my choice and my decision because, sitting down, I think I'm wrong. It's not going to be because somebody sat down and said, 'You go apologize.'

"It has to be thought about an when I have a couple minutes to sit down by myself, I'll think about it."

Connors said his thumb and his frame of mind are fine, and although the weather has prevented him from getting as much practice on grass as he would have liked, everyone else is in the same predicament.

"My thumb's all right. It's O.K. to play," he said, adding that he will wear the aluminium splint he used today "as long as it hurts."