For the third time in four days, rain washed out most of the day's scheduled program in the Wimbledon tennis championships, creating havoc for spectators, players, officials, and even the caterer, who had to throw away thousands of pounds of fresh strawberries.

Several showers, including a mid-afternoon thunder-and-hail storm, added to the confusion of Wimbledon's soggiest start in five years. Forecasts of more rain Friday cast a gloom over the world's premier tennis event, which has yet to kindle much real excitement.

Despite a 12 noon start -- two hours earlier than the customary "2 p.m., precisely" -- only 23 matches were finished. This left referee Fred Hoyles, the man in charge of scheduling, with a backlog of approximately 100 matches. Early starts have been declared for Friday and Saturday, but Hoyles said there is little chance of play on the middle Sunday of the fortnight, a step never taken before.

Jimmy Connors and Evonne Goolagong Cawley were the top man and woman in action today. They won easily in matches that were about as interesting as watching strawberries spoil.

Connors routed Sherwood Stewart, the 34-year-old pride of Goose Creek, Tex., who won the Grand Prix doubles championship last year and is seeded No. 2 here in doubles with 38-year-old Marty Riessen.

Stewart is no longer a serious singles player, however, and Connors won, 6-0, 6-2, 6-1.

"I'm hitting the ball about as well as I ever have," Connors, the No. 3 seed, said after the Centre Court romp, but he regularly makes that comment these days, whether it is true or not. Most often, it is not. However, Stewart didn't test him enough to tell.

Goolagong, seeded No. 4, cruised past fellow Australian Jenny Walker, 6-2, 6-2. Like Connors, she reached the third round.

The other leading men -- including four-time defending champion Bjorn Borg, whose match against Israeli Shlomo Glickstein was postponed -- have not played since Monday. Some women with first-rounded byes, including No. 3 Chris Evert Llyod, have not yet struck a ball.

The interminable waiting, lack of grass-court practice, and tension built up by constant rain interruptions eventually take a toll in upsets, reinforcing the axiom that only the strongest survive at Wimbledon. But to date, the only seed who has lost is No. 14 man Victor Amaya, beaten in five sets on Wednesday by his doubles partner, Hank Pfister.

Rain delayed the beginning of play about 40 minutes today. The sun then came out for a while, but a torrential shower, complete with lightning, thunder and hailstones as big as grapes, hit at about 3:50 p.m.

The gates of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club has been closed at 3 p.m. with more than 35,000 spectators jamming the 12-acre grounds, and there were nearly "Day of the Locus" scenes as people tried to plough through congested walkways to find shelter from the storm.

Chaotic scenes are infrequent at Wimbledon, where British reserve prevails. Spectators patiently queue up for hours and bear extreme discomfort with stiff upper lips. But today's storm caused some panic. People were nearly trampled by others who ordinarily would never think of setting an odd foot in the rosebeds.

Among today's notable winners were:

Billie Jean King, who survived two set points on her serve at 4-5 and 5-6 in the second set and beat athletic 19-year-old Anne Smith, 6-3, 7-6, on the same Centre Court where she made her Wimbledon debut in 1961, starting a string of 20 consecutive appearances that have yielded a record six singles, 10 doubles, and four mixed doubles titles.

Adriano Panatta, who outdueled fellow Italian Corrado Barazzutti, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, on Court No. 1. This was a surprisingly good match, considering that Barazzutti's first-round victory over U.S. junior champion Scott Davis on Tuesday was his first ever on grass, after four first-round exits at Wimbledon.

Ramesh Krishnan, 19, son of 1960-61 Wimbledon semifinalist Ramanathan Krishnan, who beat 36-year-old Mark Cox, 6-7, 7-5, 7-5, 6-1. Ironically, the elder Krishnan also beat Cox here one year ago. Ramesh, who upset Bill Scanlon Tuesday, next plays Balazs Taroczy, the winner probably to face Borg in the fourth round.

Onny Parun, 33, who beat Pascal Portes to reach the third round. Parun, a former semifinalist, is back playing tennis after four neck operations that nearly ended his career, and played through the qualifying rounds.

Shortly after play resumed on the Centre and No. 1 courts at about 6 p.m., a new shower moved in and terminated further action.

One of the saddest men around the grounds was Richard Tear, director of Wimbledon catering, who had to order hundreds of pounds of strawberries into the trash bin.

"We're suffering very badly because of the weather," he said, "but that's the risk you take in this business. You grow on the good times, and grow lean on the hard times.

"In wet weather, when volume goes down, you get a lot of wastage. There's no way you can avoid it. There's no way you can refrigerate a ton of strawberries, and they don't last well under refrigeration, anyway.

"The only consolation," said Tear, "is that sales of champagne are going very well. You know, with this filthy weather, people try to cheer themselves up."