A funny thing happend Friday out at the venerable All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
Bjorn Borg, who as defending champin will play the opening match on Centre Court when the Wimbledon champioships begin Monday afternoon and is favored to become the first man in 74 years to win a fifth successive singles title, was unceremoniously ordered off a practice court when his allotted time was up, just as the most humble, anonymous qualifier would have been.
That is the British way.
Borg was practicing with fellow pros Vitas Gerulaitis and Colin Dowdeswell when a club official appeared and told them to move on. Wimbledon allows each player half an hour to work out on the lovingly-manicured turf -- the outside courts only, never Centre or No. 1 -- before the championships begin. Thus a trio is allocated a total of 90 minutes. Borg and company managed an extra 15 minutes before they were shooed off, back to the grass of other area clubs.
Borg and his coach, Lennart Bergelin, took their marching orders stoically. "At least we got in an hour and three-quarters, so it wasn't too bad. You have to abide by the rules," said Bergelin.
Gerulaitis and his coach, Australian Fred Stolle were miffed, however. Snapped Gerulaitis to the official,"Aren't you emarrassed to tell Bjorn Borg to get off a court at Wimbledon?"
Obviously, "Broadway Vitas" doesn't understand the British mentality. This is England, where rules are rules, and men with blazers and badges enforce them rigidly. People who don't like it endure it anyway with stiff upper lips.
In tennis, Wimbledon has always been a law unto itself, crusty and secure in its understated sense of superiority. Its attitude has long been that "the game and the championships are bigger than any player," and this remains true in the era of the tennis superstar.
Christopher Gorringe -- who has succeeded Maj. David Mills as secretary of the All England Club, the first civilian to hold this position in peacetime -- explained that practice had to be limited to keep the courts in proper condition, and that seeded players could not be given preferential treatment.
Heavens, no. That would be "just not on," as the British say -- an affront to their cultivated sense of fair play.
It is unlikely that denial of a few minutes more of practice will deprive Borg of his eagerly-sought fifth straight title, however.
Last week's draw was king to him. It steered him clear of the big servers who can be so bothersome in the tournament's first week, before the favorites get accustomed to the fast, tricky bounces of the grass. It also put the three lefthanders he respects most -- John McEnroe, last year's runner-up, Roscoe Tanner, and 1974 Champ Jimmy Connors -- in the opposite half of the 128-man field from Borg, so that only one can get to him, and only in the final.
In fact, there is not one fellow in Borg's half who has beaten him in the last two years. His first-round opponent, Ismail El Shafel of Egypt, is one of three men who have beaten Borg at Wimbledon (Roger Taylor and Arthur Ashe are the others), but that was back in 1974, when the remarkable Swede was only 17 and not yet a major force on grass courts. El Shafei, 32, is only a part-time player now. He made it through three qualifying rounds, but his left-handed serve is not nearly as oppressive as it once was.
Borg probably will play Raul Ramirez, a semifinalist in 1976 who is slowly regaining his lost form, in the second round, but the quick and nimble Mexican's lightweight game is not the sort that usually troubles Borg. Yannick Noah, the aggressive 6-foot-4 inch Frenchman who was seeded 12th, could have been a tough fourth-round foe, but he has withdrawn with a thigh injury suffered in the French Open three weeks ago.
If the seedins hold, Borg would play Gene Mayer in the quarterfinals and Gerulaitis in the semis. Neither has ever beaten him.
Connors likely will meet Tanner in the quarterfinals, the winner to play McEnroe in the semis, and the survivor to take on Borg in the final.
My advice is: in one match, with all the strawberries and cream on the line, bet on Borg.
As soon as the men's draw was made, London bookmakers lowered the price on Borg from even money to 4-5. The best odds they were offering for my money, was a Borg-Tracy Austin "double" at 5-1.
Austin, the 17-year-old reigning U.S. Open champion, is only second favorite to Martina Navratilova, who is striving to become the first woman since Billie Jean King in 1966-67-68 to win the women's title three years running. But Austin has by far the easiest draw of any of the top women.
No one should trouble her until the quarterfinals, where she should beat Dianne Fromholtz. In the semis, she will probably play 1971 champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
By a quirk, all eight qualifiers would up in the bottom half of the women's draw, which is considerably weaker than the top half. Only Goolagong, recently recovered from a back injury, has a tough road. She will probably have to beat veteran Betty Stove (who upset Navratilova in a tuneup last week, but acknowledged that "one sunny day doesn't make a summer"), talented 18-year-old Czech Hana Mandikova (streaky, unpredictable, but a real threat on grass), and fellow Australian Wendy Turnbull to get to Austin in the semis.
In the top half, the explosive and ever-agressive Navratilova will probably have to meet Rosemary Casals in the third round, improving Kathy Jordan in the fourth, either King or Pam Shriver in the quarterfinals, and Chris Evert Lloyd in the semis.
No one seriously expects anybody outside the top four -- Navratilova, Austin, Evert and Goolagong -- to win the women's title. No. 5 seed King, who at 36 holds the record for career Wimbledon titles (six singles, 10 doubles, four mixed doubles), is the best outsider, but she has the toughest draw of all.
Evert seems a sure bet for the semis. Her first test should be Virginia Ruzici, whom she beat for the 10th time in as many career meetings in the French Open final, in the fourth round. Then either 33-year-old Virginia Wade, the fading 1977 champion, or 15-year-old Andrea Jaeger, the youngest seed in Wimbledon's 103-year history, in the quarters. Wade may be lucky to get past her first-round match with Ivanna Madruga, who already has beaten her four times on clay this year.
One of the fascinating things about Wimbledon, however, is that it is so predictable in some ways and so gloriously uncertain in others.
The Borg practice-court incident was entirely in character. So was Wimbledon's decision not to yield any of the authority of its referee or all-powerful championships committee to the globetrotting "Grand Prix tournaments. Wimbledon will call its own shots as long as grass is green and the roses and hydrangeas that decorate the spruced and verdant grounds of the All England club bloom in the spring.