One of the unique and reassuring things about the Wimbledon tennis championships is its well-defined and decidedly British sense of history.
Other tournaments have preserved little of their distant heritage. Even the French, for instance, are embarrassed to admit they do not know the first name of the man who won their first national championships in 1881. He is listed in all the archives merely as J. Briggs. His first initial and surname are all we know about him.
Volumes have been written about Spencer Gore, who won the inaugural Wimbledon in 1877 and predicted that the new-fangled sport of lawn tennis would never last. He has scandalized the sparse audience at the old All England Croquet Club - The "Lawn Tennis" was added to the name later, and the club moved to its current grounds in southwest suburban London in 1922 - by following his serve to the net and volleying. This was considered bad form, quite ungentlemanly in those days of long white flannels and pitty pat rallies.
Much is known about most of Gore's successors. Precisely 100 years ago, in 1878, a 23-year-old trainee coffee player named P. Frank Hadow, home on leave from Ceylon, dethroned the champion, foiling the net-rusher in the final by perfecting a new tactic: The lob.
That was the first and last tournament Hadow ever played. A fortnight after his victory, he boarded a slow boat for China, alighted at Ceylon, and did not witness another game of tennis until 1926, when he was invited back to Wimbledon for its jubilee celebration.
History is cherished at Wimbledon, preserved in books, in vibrant memories, and in a tennis museum - known simply as "The Museum," just as the tournament is known officially as "The Championships." Taped radio reports of pre-world war II matches crackle from speakers, and the changing room of the original club grounds has been recreated, with the actual wash basins, fixtures and lockers intact.
In adds impact to today's men's singles final between 1976-77 champion Bjorn Borg and 1974 champion Jimmy Connors torealize that men brought up against the rich backdrop of history consider the ongoing Borg-Connors duel to be as good as any tennis has known.
"It's one of the classic rivalries. It must be. It recreates the great historical clashes, the first of which was probably Ernest Renshaw against Herbert Barlow in the 1880s," Lance Tingay, the historian of the All-England Club said yesterday.
"Of course, between the late 1920s and the late 60s, when the game became open, the big white chief of Wimbledon usually turned pro and didn't meet his amateur rivals again," added Tingay, tennis correspondent of The London Daily Telegraph and author of the definitive "100 Years of Wimbledon" for last year's centenary celebration. "But of all the rivalries. I can't think of any to compare with Borg-Connors."
Tingay has not missed a day of play at Wimbledon since 1932, so his judgment carries the accumulated weight of years. "Both players are such obvious contenders for the world No. 1 ranking that their meeting here, over five sets in the best setting to decide it, must be very exciting. It certainly was last year: One of the best post-war finals," he said.
Borg and Connors have played 13 times. Borg won the first, indoors at Stockholm in the fall of 1973. Connors won the next seven, but Borg has won four of their last five meetings over the past two years, two of three in 1978.
Virtually every one since the 1976 U.S. Open final, which Connors won in four brutal sets, has been exceptional in pace, shotmaking, and intensity - an uncompromising war between the two best players in the game.
"We always go right at each other . . . from the first ball to the last," Connors said after coming back from 0-4 to 4-4 in the fifth set of last year's final here only to lose it, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.
Borg says that his encounters with Connors are "something special . . . he's the man to beat, for everybody." Connors feels the same way about Borg and Wimbledon is the showdown they both want to win more than any other.
The $34,000 first prize means nothing to two-players earning more than a million dollars a year. Pride of performance is more important, for the world is watching. "It doesn't matter if it's $50,000 or a $1 first prize, no one cares about that," said Borg. "It's only to win Wimbledon, to win this kind of title."
Borg and Connors play a futuristic kind of tennis, slugging away at each other with rackets strung tigher than any other players use - Borg's at 85 pounds tension in his wooden racket, Connors' at 84 pounds in his steel frame. They always use every inch of the court, probing and testing each other.
There is an interesting contrast in temperaments and styles. Borg has a better serve and hits with heavy topspin. Connors is more adroit at the net and hits more flat and slice shots that will stay lower on the grass of Centre Court. Borg, 22, is icy, impassive, stolid, just as you would expect of a man with a pulse rate of 35.
Connors, 25, is more hyper. He screams at himself, slaps his thigh, jokes with the crowd, exhorts himself to put every ounce of strength into every shot." "I get cranked up and everything I do is to help me produce my best tennis," he says. "I'm the same as I was at 19 or 20, when I was a young punk, buy maybe not as loud."
Connors has been in the final four of the last five years and is aching to reassert himself as the world's No. 1 player. Borg says that today's match is the biggest of his life because he has a chance to become the first man since Fred Perry (1934-35-36) to win three successive Wimbledon singles titles.
"I said all along that it would be Borg and Connors in the final," noted Perry, now 71 and a commentator on tennis for BBC radio. "They're head and shoulders above anybody else, but when they play each other, throw the odds out the window."
As befits Wimbledon, that is the voice of history speaking, live.