ON OUR 93-tournament Grand Prix tennis circuit, irreverence toward authority is the order of the day. There is one strong exception - Wimbledon. Even Ilie Nastase behaves himself at Wimbledon.
The 102nd tournament for all comers at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is upon us. Wimbledon is actually a London suburb, about as far from Buckingham Palace as Silver Spring is from the White House, but after 101 years the name is synonymous with the best of tennis. For the fortnight beginning June 25, tennis' center stage belongs to the British.
Above all else Wimbledon is distinctly British. It is austere, reserved; it flatters tradition. It is an institution. To say there will always be Wimbledon is to speak in redundancies.
Just as the tournament organizers refer to themselves more formally as The Committee, they likewise refer to the tournament as The Champion-ships - as if setting forth a peer group of one. They are right, of course. "Quite right," as the British would say To them, like Shakespeare's works, the play is more important than the actors; and like the Changing of the Guard, continuity and ritual are more important than expediencies in times of tight purse strings.
This 12-day event (there is no play on Sundays) grosses roughly $1.5 million of which over $500,000 is paid out in prize money. The purse is now up to par compared with other tournaments, but it was not always like that.
I have heard several well-connected British tennis officials say that tennis players make too much money. And for that reason, they continued, "we will never fuel the prize money spiral." It profanes the committee's sense of fair play that tennis players can make upwards of a million dollars per year hitting a little white ball.
But the committee practices its own benign class system. For men there are two changing rooms. Changing room "A" and changing room "B" Qualifiers, first-timers, and nobodies use changing room "B." The stars use changing room "A." Of course that grates against our American egalitarianism.
Preferred treatment doesn't stop there. There are five stadiums at Wimbledon. Center court, and courts one, two, three and 14. Players having matches on any of these courts are accorded a full complement of lines persons - 13 in all plus six ball boys.
If you have to play on any of the other courts, you are lucky to get five line persons and four ball boys. Whether or not 13 people are needed is debatable, but the fact remains that conditions are better on the show courts. Naturally the seeded players stand a very good chance of playing on the five special courts.
Are you thinking of going to Wimbledon? Well, don't count on seeing anything substantive during the second week of competition - unless you're planning to go in 1983. The only way you can get a seat for a quarterfinal, semifinal or final match in the next few years is to buy it from a tout (scalper). They charge whatever the market will bear. It may bear up to $300 for a center court seat during the second week.
After all is said and done, Wimbledon is still the best show in the game. I'd rather win Wimbledon than any other event. And so would everybody else, including Jimmy Conners, says he'd rather win the U.S. Open.
Just as British royalty seems a little more royal than other monarchies, so too Wimbledon's grass is always a little greener. But then it should be - Wimbledon's head groundskeeper has been living at Wimbledon for more than 40 years.