Winning a Wimbledon tennis title requires playing in "two" tournaments. The first week is as different from the second week as the first two days of a pro golf tournament are different from the last two.
As you watch the daily coverage by satellite on television, the first thing you will notice as the days go by is the change in the color of the court. On the first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the grass is green. But what you can't see is the sponginess. The feeling is akin to that of running on a golf green.
The pace is slower, too, as the moist, half-inch-long blades of blue-green grass bite the balls. The artists of the game -- like Ilie Nastase, Vijay Amritraj, John McEnroe and Evonne Goolagong-Cawley -- can now play clay-court tennis. About half of the players will slip and fall during the first three days while chasing wide balls, so slick is the grass.
Roscoe Tanner is "very nervous" the first three days, he told me. His 130-mile-per-hour serve is reduced to 110 mph after it hits the carpet-like surface. The smarter players will go for wide placements on their first serves rather than speed because of the traction problems. Of course, if Tanner is serving well, it doesn't matter very much what color the court is.
By the end of play on the first Wednesday, only 32 men and 64 women are left, and half the men's doubles first round is finished -- if it hasn't rained. If it happens to rain hard two of the first three days, the referee, Fred Hoyles, will probably call for a 1 p.m. starting time for Thursday and Friday. That will amount to 40 extra hours of playing time on the 20 courts. f
By the end of the first week, the field will be pared down to eight men and eight women. The grass will no longer be that rich English racing green. It will resemble your front lawn around the end of October. The center of the baseline, the center of the service lines and the "no-man's land" directly in back of the service lines will be noticeably browner than the rest of the court.
The grass itself will lose a lot of its bite. The pace of the ball will quicken about 20 percent. The serves of Tanner and Victor Amaya and the ground strokes of Jimmy Connors and Tracy Austin will ricochet rather than rebound off the courts. Tradition will improve considerably as the moisture is squirted out of the blades of grass.
If all goes well, the women will get one complete day of rest Sunday before the quarterfinals start Monday. The men will get two days of rest -- Tuesday is men's quarterfinal day. The scalpers on Church Road outside the southwest gate will have a field day. The field courts will be full of doubles, mixed doubles, veterans, junior and plate matches. (The plate is a competiton held for singles competitors who lose in the first and second rounds a sort of consolation event.)
Only the Who's Who of tennis is left in the locker rooms at this stage. Every male making it to the second tournament has completed at least 12 sets and possibly 20; every women eight and 12, respectively.
There are always a few surprises in the quarterfinals. This year, look for Victor Pecci, Victor Amaya, Bill Scanlon, Stan Smith, Vijay Amritraj or Ivan Lendl to make the last eight. Andrea Jaeger and Bettina Bunge may also make the quarters in the women's event.
No nonseeded player has ever won Wimbledon. The second week finds them missing. Experience plays a disproportionate role at Wimbledon. I made and won three friendly wagers four weeks ago that Connors would not win the French title; These days, no one strolls into Roland Garros in Paris and walks off with the trophy the first couple of years. Wimbledom is the same.
The pressure on the finalists is painful. Even the unflappable Bjorn Borg admitted that after having won three Wimbledons he was "so nervous in the fourth set against Roscoe that I could hardly hold the racket." Billie Jean King, conversely, seems to relish and sometimes wallow in the mental anquish.
The center court on the final day will look like dry toast and have the feel of velour underfoot. Five percent of mankind will watch as the BBC transmits the match all over the globe. Whoever umpires this final match will never "sit" a final match again. For that official, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
And as much as is written of spoiled, ill-mannered tennis players baiting crowds and officials, you will see little or none of that. Even Nastase behaves himself at Wimbledon.
I predict that Tracy Austin, Martina Navratilova or Cris Evert Lloyd will win the women's crown and Borg, McEnroe or Tanner the men's title. The real winner, of course, will be Wimbledon itself. The men and women who have won there belong to a neither appointive nor elected. Even the novelist, Tom Wolfe, would agree that only the players with the "right stuff" deserve to win.