The proper way to arrive at one's first Wimbledon is to hail a shiny black London cab beside Hyde Park, then sit back in luxury until one has been chauffeured past the long queues of ticket-hungry mortals in Church Road and deposited regally at the main gate of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

It is not considered proper to leave one's wallet, with all one's money, credit cards and credentials, in the back seat of the taxi.

Nor is it considered absolutely de rigeur to drop all one's parcels in the middle of the street, then chase the cab as it heads back to London, screaming as one goes, "Stop that taxi!"

However, I did it my way.

After all, not everybody can come up to the bobby at the gate in a lather worthy of Bjorn Borg in the fifth set and croak, "Help!" Actually, that's wrong: Borg never has sweated as much as your correspondent was sweating then.

"Left wallet in cab," I panted succinctly.

"You're all right," said the 8-foot-tall officer. "The cabby will return your wallet."


"London cabbies are notoriously honest."

"I had $350 in the wallet in cash. Too much, I know."

"The cabby will probably return your wallet," amended the bobby.

It's a peculiarity of human nature that we sometimes see most clearly when our luck is worst; disaster unclouds the vision. Walk down the street on the day you've been fired and you may see suffering humanity with a startling vividness; few tonics surpass the shock of calamity.

So, even as small and comic a matter as a man finding himself in a foreign country without his wallet can have a certain focusing effect on the perceptions. Wimbledon, in particular, is a singularly interesting sight to a person who has, momentarily, no credentials, no money, no proof of identity. Of course, in few places in the sporting world is it so imperative to have exactly those things -- credentials, money, a sense of identity.

Even after having talked your way inside, left with one pound and a few shillings loose change in your pocket, you notice that eight bruised, not-yet-ripe strawberries with a ladle of supermarket cream over them cost more than $2. In the sycophantish lore of Wimbledon, this dish is known as strawberries with double Devonshire cream. To a man with no wallet, it's called a shameless ripoff. The poetically named ice lolly for which Wimbledon is famous is a small orange popcicle which might retail for two cents in an honest world. It costs a dollar.

In short, to a fellow with an empty pocket, Wimbledon looks like an elegant con game, like a down-on-its-luck family of aristocrats who open their house to tourists, giving a glance at the master's bed chamber for a quid. Wimbledon is, in part, a blue-blooded shuck-and-jive, an upper-crust version of Disneyland.

The greatest shock at the championships is the incredible inconveniences to which the public is subjected and the casual indifference with which its aggravations are observed.

First of all, Wimbledon is a zoo. No major American sports event, except perhaps the Indianapolis 500, is so overcrowded; the pathways between outside courts often are completely impassable and the subterranean corridors in the bowels of Centre Court stadium and the No. 1 Court are so jammed with elbowing throngs that elderly women and children often look frightened and men are shoved and jostled to the edge of real anger.

Quite simply, the All England club has decided that it is willing to let 38,000 people a day sardine themselves into quarters that would be filled with 25,000.

"The wife and I went to Wimbleton a few years back, just to say we'd had the experience," said Jack Scagell, a London builder, "but we'd certainly never go again. You can't move, can't see anything. It's much better to watch it on the telly."

It is Wimbledon's central pretense that this is an elegant event, part of the season" that includes the Royal Ascot races and rowing at Henley-on-Thames. If you arrive by limousine and sit in the royal box with the Duke and Duchess of Kent, maybe it is; for a few hundred people with the correct color passes, Wimbledon is a chance to sit on the clubhouse balconies and look out over the lawns at the spire of a huge, ancient church on a hill. And, if they choose, look 20 feet down at several thousand people who all seem to be trapped in one great outdoor stuck elevator.

However, it would be closer to the truth to say that Wimbleton is saturated with commercialism. It's true that the one tiny word "Rolex" in neat yellow paint on the main scoreboard is the only brand name which appears inside the large grandstand complex.

But it is also true that a bazaar worthy of Calcutta encircles half of the stadium, offering everything from bon bons to the tackiest Wimbleton souvenirs. Even the members' enclosure -- a high-security outdoor cafe and bar -- has been invaded by a legion of sales reps who find it an excellent place to do business over a pint of bitter. And, as always, the players' team room is the sight of more deal-closing handshakes than any other venue in tennis. Endorsements, appearances and future tournament commitments are wrapped up there.

It is stunning to those whose basic familiarity with Wimbleton is the American telecast of the semifinals and finals in the gorgeously giant and green Centre Court to realize that the huge preponderance of the tournament exists on outside courts, which are a scandal both for players and spectators.

By the third day of the championships, most of those grass courts are, to put it mildly, an eyesore. No minor league baseball infield would show its face if it were half so brown, scarred and patched with makeshift sod. Wimbleton insists that brown grass is hardier and tougher. Then how come the grass around the courts is so pretty while the grass on the courts looks like it has been trampled to stubble?

Wimbleton is the only summer event that is played by people in short pants and watched by people in parkas.

On three of the first five days this week -- the days that veterans called typical -- the effect of watching Wimbledon tennis was roughly equivalent to sitting through a seven-hour football game on a raw, drizzly fall day. The outside grandstands, exposed to the winds and intermittent rain, are brutal; the inside stands, including Centre Court, are even colder, since the wind seems to swirl once it gets in there, and everything is in shadow.

Curiously, the British seem to regard all these discomforts as the surest proof that they are having a good time. Hardiness, and the conspicuous demonstration thereof, is an English trait. If the sun can be detected behind the steel clouds, that's wryly called "a beach day."

As further instance, on the tube (subway) -- which takes an hour and a transfer or two to get from Westminster Abbey to Wimbledon -- it is normal for people of all ages and sexes to prefer standing to sitting; vacant seats will go ignored for several stops as passengers stand. That is, until the odd American decides to sit.

That tube lets its passengers off at Southfield Station, which is more than a mile from Wimbledon's gates. The English think nothing of the hike.However, a line of 50 or more taxis stands adjacent to the station, the drivers preying on tourists who either do not know how far away the grounds are, or are simply too lazy for a constitutional.

Americans are no slouches at waiting in ridiculous lines to get tickets to a World Series or such, but the British are, far and away, more draft. The daily lines are immense (several hundred yards long and a half-dozen abreast) but they cannot touch the unbelievable line that has been building for a week to get the couple of thousand standing-room seats for Saturday's Centre Court final. These zany campers dress in blue jeans, sleep in pup tents, and, in some cases, have tuxedos and top hats hung on the iron fences in preparation for the great day. If they get in.

It is fascinating that a nation so obviously hardly constantly goes through such paroxysms of selfflagellation for its supposed lack of national competitiveness. British players, fans and press seem obsessed with the question: "Why are we such good losers?"

"I hate the English attitude of putting up a 'good show' in defeat," said Anne Hobbs, the British woman who upset Virginia Wade and reached the round of 16.

"I've gone to America to train with Dennis Ralston because he's helping me get rid of that point of view. It's not enough to be satisfied with playing well. If you don't win, you can't be pleased. If you're good enough to win a set, then how can you be content with not winning the whole match?

"That's the American attitude."

It should be reiterated that a fellow with no wallet is prone to notice the wind and cold; he sees the brown spots in a generally green lawn. And he tastes the sour strawberry, not the sweet one.

In fact, he even has a tendency to anger.

Not everyone can leave his wallet in a cab. But when that same person can destroy public property, vandalize the Wimbledon clubshouse, force a change of championship rules and risk having himself ejected from the grounds -- all in his first day -- well, that's going some.

You see, officer, it happened this way. It was after midnight and I was one of the last two reporters to leave the stadium. I had called various police stations, taxi companies and lost and found agencies throughout the day and the notoriously honest English cabby had not returned by wallet.

So, when the telephone box next to the press room began eating my shillings and giving me mothing lbut disconnect dial tones in response, I slugged it. Naturally, the entire contraption -- perhaps six square feet and 30 pounds in size -- came off its plaster moorings, fell four feet to the floor, and smashed into countless pieces, coins rolling all over the place.

What you might call the perfect end to the perfect day.

Since I was, by now, the last person on the Wimbledon grounds, except the gateman, there was nobody to whom to report my damages.

I slept. I awoke. And in every sense, it was a new day.

In a pointless exercise, I reported to the lost-property office in Penton Street to fill out forms.

"My names is Boswell and . . ."

"Of yes, Mr. Boswell," said the man at the window. "Been expecting you. I suppose you'll be wanting your wallet."

The driver's number was 11824. He didn't even leave a name or address. As is British law, he was entitled to a 10 percent finder's fee for returning a lost wallet, which came to $35 of the $350. I doubled the reward and wondered if that wasn't rather small recompense for someone saving your life in a hostile land.

On arriving back at Wimbledon, I learned immediately that there was a hot news story brewing. Vandals had broken into the hallowed grounds and smashed a telephone box in the press room in search of cash. Apparently the damage had been done with a large bat, or, perhaps, an ax.

No one knew, as yet, what other larceny had been done on the grounds. Police would investigate. All doors to the portion of the clubhouse containing the various press rooms would now be locked at a far earlier hour, vastly inconveniencing all American journalists.

"I'll tell them I broke it, apologize and pay the damages," I said to the one other reporter, Barry Lorge, who had heard the thing that went crash in the night. "I feel like a fool, but I don't suppose they can shoot me."

"Don't be so sure," said Lorge, president of the Tennis Writers of America. "This is Wimbledon. In 104 years, they've never had a vandal before. They're already making rules. They love to make rules. And enforce them. There are a lot of very stern old men around here."

Lorge ushered me into the presence of the head of press operations, Roy McKelvie, an Irishman with a rubicund face and a reputation for temper. "He'll blow his stack," predicted Lorge.

I told my story.

At the end, he said, "Well, accidents will happen."

He phoned the "telephone boys" to come repair "a rather well-smashed box." And he wouldn't hear of any payment of damages.

If losing wallets produces one form of insight, then being forgiven for our sins produces another. We see others more generously, cut them a little more slack. The strawberries began to taste better. The crowds could be tolerated.

As events conducted in the real world are judged, Wimbledon seemed to be doing rather decently after all. Where could you find so many roses and pink and purple hydrangeas? What stadium in any sport could match the labyrinthine catacombs here, the sense of place and tradition?

Today, as this Wimbledon reached its midpoint, the sun tried to break out from behind the constant quilt of clouds over London. It failed. The skies over Wimbledon remained gray and chilly, not at all the setting one might expect for the world's greatest tennis tournament.

In other words, all things considered, a beach day.