Wibledon, the oldest and grandest of tennis tournaments, has failed to become the American television attraction it should be because it happens to be played on British Summer Time.

When play on the Centre Court of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club begins each day "at 2 p.m. precisely," it is precisely 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C., 8 a.m. in Chicago, 7 a.m. in Denver, and still slumber time in Los Angeles.

Therefore, the Wimbledon finals always have been televised to America by "tape delay," the first ball being struck on U.S. television screens after the singles titles already have been decided, or just about.

Since news travels fast, many people who otherwise would have been riveted to their sets already had heard the results, and consequently lost interest. For most sports fans, after all, anything that is not live is dead.

But this Saturday, the breakfast and viewing habits of millions of American tennis aficionados will be altered, thanks to some innovative thinking at NBC Sports.

Hold the grapefruit, hold the O.J. Get yourself a big bowl of strawberries and cream instead, because the Wimbledon men's singles final - Bjorn Borg going for his fourth successive title against Roscoe Tanner - will be televised live to America for the first time, at 9 a.m. Easter time (WRC-TV-4 in Washington).

"I certainly don't think we're doing a disservice to America by wiping out some cartoons and replacing them with live coverage of the Wimbledon final," said Don Ohlmeyer, executive producer of NBC Sports.

"Some kids may suffer temporarily from withdrawal symptoms because they don't get their Saturday morning fix of 'The Flintstones,' but I don't think it will permanently damage their psyches.

"A lot of people think we are making a big mistake by going live in the morning instead of on tape in the afternoon, as we've always done in the past. It's a tremendous ratings gamble because there are simply not as many sets in use at 9 a.m. as there are in the afternoon.

"But Wimbledon is one of the world's great sporting events, and I think this is the way it should be done. I think people still get excited about seeing things live via satellite.

"I've been wrong before, but I think they'll get out of bed and watch."

"I've been wrong before, too - as I recall, I picked John McEnroe to win the men's singles, and he didn't make it to the second week - but I too think people will get out of bed and watch."

Most sports fans would much rather see Wimbledon bleary-eyed and live than bright-eyed and five hours after the fact, which is why NBC should be commended for trying a noble experiment, even though some of the network's executives think it invites a ratings disaster.

The ratings for this year's Wimbledon final may dwindle to some extent anyway because the Borg-Tanner match does not command as much interest as the Borg-Jimmy Connors confrontations of the past two years.

But the people who do watch undoubtedly will be much happier knowing there is no chance that somebody will happen by during the course of the telecast and let the outcome out of the bag . . . at least, not in the East.

In the Rocky Mountain and Pacific time zones, there will be a tape delay, the show coming on at 8:30 a.m. in both regions, presumably while the match is in progress.

"A lot of people have told me that they wouldn't go near a radio or watch a newscast the day of the finals, because they wanted to watch it and not know who had won. If they knew, it would spoil it for them, and they might as well go out and play a couple of sets instead," said Ted Nathanson, coproducer and director of NBC's Wimbledon coverage.

"Spontaneity is a big part of sports television. Even though it presents some technical problems for us, being on live this year should make Wimbledon a much better show."

NBC plans to begin its six-hour extravaganza - the ads the network has been running, inviting viewers to "join us for breakfast at Wimbledon," should offer them lunch as well - with Borg and Tanner striding on to the Centre Court and bowing to the royal box.

"That's always a great moment, one which captures the ambiance of Wimbledon," Ohlmeyer said.

The contents of the rest of the show will depend very much on how long the men's singles final takes. There will be taped highlights of Friday's women's singles final between defending champion Martina Navratilova and 1974-76 champ Chris Evert - perhaps the entire match if it is a good one and the men's final runs short.

Ohlmeyer also would like to televise portions of the men's and women's doubles finals live.

"For some reason, U.S. television has tended to shy away from doubles, but I think that is a mistake," he said.

"Most people who play tennis play doubles. They enjoy doubles more than singles, and a good doubles match is a wonderful spectator attraction. There are probably more exciting points than in singles, especially when your get four guys at the net, whacking away at each other eyeball-to-eyeball."

Now that Billie Jean King is in the women's doubles final - she and Navratilova beat Francoise Durr and Virginia Wade today, 6-2, 6-4, and will play Betty Stove and Wendy Turnbull for the title Saturday - there will be more interest in that event, as King seeks her record-breaking 20th career Wimbledon title.

If that match is not over by the time the regular coverage ends, there will be live updates on it inserted into the baseball game that follows.

"We've got a lot of options, but we really won't know until we see how long the men's singles final takes. That's the focal point fo the telecast, and we'll work the women's final, the doubles and the feature material we have prepared around it," said Geoff Mason, coproducer of the Wimbledon telecasts.

"It would be nice to get a lot of the other things in, but personally I'd settle for a nice five-set, 4 1/2-hour men's final. An epic - that's what we always root for."

That would be the cream on the strawberries for NBC's first "Breakfast at Wimbledon." CAPTION: Picture 1, Jimmy Connors' Centre Court efforts were fruitless. UPI; Picture 2, Bjorn Borg clubs a topspin forehand in semifinal. AP