"Look at Wimbeldon honestly. It rains here constantly. It's always cold. The courts get chewed up. The conditions are just bad. There's nothing championship about this tournament except its prestige ." --- John McEnroe, No. 2 seed

Wimbledon was at its placid, engaging, introductory best today.

Few would guess that this All England club, which begins its 104th lawn tennis championship on Monday, is under public attack.

Blessed with unaccustomed sunshine and cathedral silence, these famous grounds lay serene, the solitary preserve for a little longer of a few dozen practicing players and idle spectators.

This was the afternoon to see John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, who almost came to blows on Centre Court last year, duel for an hour on an obscure side court as though a silver cup were at stake. And then walk off as practice-time buddies and soon-to-be U.S. Davis Cup teammates. "We're just trying to decide who's skinnier, and more misunderstood," said the once-pudgy McEnroe, who has lost 22 pounds in an attempt to surpass Bjorn Borg as the world's top player.

This was the morning to see top seed Chris Evert Lloyd at her most relaxed, saucy and slyly irreverent as she practiced like a serve-and-volley wild woman with Virginia Wade, then vamped with friends. "I'm gonna be mean this year," said Evert with a mock snarl. "I'm tired of losing here. Enough is enough."

Soon enough the world will be banging at Wimbledon's door.

There will be more tart, agnostic appraisals, like McEnroe's off-the-cuff blurt today that "it's a shame that only two tennis tournaments get great emphasis, and the one of them has to be played under the conditions we have here."

There will be more banner headlines, like the one in the sober intellectual Observer this week, which asked, "Is Wimbledon a racket?" Or more exposes like the BBC documentary this week that grilled All England club members for their greater interest in maximizing profits than in giving a leg up to Britain's pathetic tennis programs.

In a city with a thousand greenhaired, unemployed punk rockers for every white-haired, never-employed aristocrat, it was inevitable that someone would eventually ask how Wimbledon could gross $5 million a year and give back the merest pittance -- less than a tithe -- to society.

It took England a bit more than a century to get around to the job.This may become known as the year Wimbeldon got the third-degree and the rubber hose. At any rate, the country is in the midst of a fit of social conscience, much to Wimbledon's temporary distress.

Like America's golf Masters, Wimbledon is one of those perennial sports paradoxes: a collision of elitist esthetics and democratic ethics. Nothing is harder to justify than vested privilege; Wimbledon's only justification is its grace.

And few days are better for appreciating this stained-glass window of tennis than today.

With derisive irony, Yeats once wrote, "Surely among a rich man's flowering lawns, there peace rains down until the basin fills." The poet went on to say that peace of mind and peace of spirit couldn't be bought for the price of a good landscape gardener. That doesn't mean Wimbledon hasn't tried.

Once credential-checking constables have sifted out the annointed and the appointed who are allowed on the grounds, it would be hard for a man's spirits to get too riled. Here, two odors seem to mix -- hydrangeas and history.

Look on any court and there seems to be a whiff of past Wimbledons begging to be savored again.

There, on court No. 7, Wade is hitting with Evert. Was it just four years go that "our Ginny" was champion here in the Silver Jubilee year, winning before the queen? And who was the greatest victory of her career over but Evert in that year's semifinal?

When their court time ends, Wade picks up a match with Sue Barker on No. 14. That, too, has echoes. In the last 15 years, England has adopted two players as its future champions, women supposedly born to the Wimbledon throne -- Wade, the vicar's daughter, and Barker, the blond beauty.

Both were disappointments, just as every British player since the war has been. Both suffered at the hands of the tabloids and the fans. Wade was exonerated, at last, on grounds of advancing age and her one glorious victory here; Barker although it took a long time, was finally forgiven.

For years, Wade and Barker -- those two uncrowned queens, each getting in the other's way -- were on a chilly footing. Now, Wade has let the gray come into her hair; Barker is content with a modest success, a solid popularity. They play together happily.

Only this week, England may have found a scapegoat for its decades of tennis humiliation: Wimbledon itself.

"Are Wimbledon members living high off the profits that should rightly belong to British tennis? Yes," commented the Observer.

The hard, ugly numbers soon follow. Wimbledon, you see, has been investigated by the British government. A year ago, the minister of sport set up something called the Smith Committee to look at the lords of the All England Club.

And my, oh, my what the committe found. The All England club's cash in hand exceeds $4 million, yet last year it spent only $60,000 on coaching and training for British youths. But the club has spent $6 million in the last year on improving its grandstand. When Wimbledon's annual $2.5 million at the till is weighed against the club's paltry $300,000 contribution to the nation's tennis cause, the question being raised loudly here is: where is the odd $1 million or so getting sidetracked?

Nasty names are being called. Why, for instance, do Wimbledon's 500 or fewer members (who pay $100 a year in total dues and expenses), have priviliges and receive services that might easily be worth $10,000 a year?

For a nation that once ruled the waves, but now must settle for ruling the world's most prestigious tennis tournament, these are not easy questions.

Fortunately for the All England club, emphasis will soon shift from its books to its beautiful event.

The sun shone so fiercely this afternoon -- once almost breaking through the clouds -- that Connors looked up in disbelief and said, "The entire English summer has just been condensed into one hour. And it will be over soon."

Instead of being inundanted by the usual 30,000 fans (perhaps 10,000 more than this facility should hold), the paths and gardens of Wimbeldon were the private playpen of America's best players: McEnroe and Connors.

For those who wonder about this sport's central appeal, Superbrat and Jimbo gave a perfect demonstration in the sort of sustained battled that perhaps no other sport could boast of in a mere practice session.

Tennis is, above all, the gentility's form of fisticuffs; it is sustained, hour-after-hour, one-on-one combat testing both skill and personality. This mannerly, noncontact sport demands the sort of strong, often colorful, character usually associated with the most brash and visceral games.

Just last year, in the semifinals, Connors told the pouting and complaining McEnroe, eye-to-eye at the changeover, "My little baby has better manners than you do." McEnroe answered with a curse.

These two me who have the best chance to end Bjorn Borg's streak of five consecutive Wimbledon titles (35 straight matches) exchanged only pleasantries and grunts this day. The banter was lightweight; the concussive hitting was heavyweight.

From all quadrants, groundsmen and workers gathered at remote court No. 11 until the pair of stubble-beared, lean-and-lighting belters were surrounded by chaps in knee-length white coats.

McEnroe, suddenly realizing the bizarre nature of their silent gallery, said, "Well, Jim, they've always said that someday they'd have to send out the guys in the white coats for us."

Most atheletes show a dramtically different side of the natures a couple of days before a major event when their enthusiasm is high but their solemn game face is not yet in place. Few, however, show that difference more than McEnroe, Connors, and Evert did during their pastoral play.

McEnroe, supposedly spoiled and rude, was in his most cheerful mood. Nevertheless, even on a deserted court against Connors, he tossed his racket, slugged a ball in anger, almost nicking Connors, and grumbled and complained constantly. The truth of the private passion play was clear: the antics for which McEnroe is so widely damned are not so much part of his reaction to pressure or disappointment as they are an ingraned part of his perfectionist nature. McEnroe can only create his most glorious art when in his blackest self-flagellating mood.

While the side courts buzzed with activity, the stately Centre Court and Court No. 1 stood empty. Both resemble, more than anything else, enormous replicas of Shakespeare's Globe Theater with an emerald stage set in the center, ready for tennis in the round.

And, now the tennis world waits to see if this will be the summer when Borg gives his rendition of his masterpiece "Bjorn VI." CAPTION:

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