Has anybody here seen our old friend Bjorn? Over by Court 7 today, Chrissie was lovelier than ever. Soon enough, here came Jimbo with a new bounce in his aggravating strut. Billboards carry a racket ad with J.T. McEnroe Jr. staring through the strings over the words, "The Most Frightening Sight in Tennis." But nobody has seen Bjorn, because the great one isn't here.
Wimbledon without Borg is Augusta without Nicklaus, Indianapolis without Foyt. Every July we came to expect Borg hoisting that silver platter overhead. It was a sign of happy permanence. God's in his heaven and Bjorn's forehand is cutting up people. Five years running, he won Wimbledon. McEnroe ended the streak in last July's final, but there would come, we knew, another summer.
What we didn't know was that Bjorn would be on a yacht this summer. He is skipping Wimbledon--indeed, skipping all tournaments--because he doesn't want to abide by rules other players have made to make pro tennis more attractive to customers. The players decided that if a man plays fewer than 10 tournaments a year, he must win qualifying matches to enter any tournament. Borg says this is an infringement of his right to make his own schedule.
To ask Borg to qualify, by his reasoning, is utter foolishness, not unlike asking Michelangelo to do a connect-the-dots before turning him loose on a ceiling. Jack Nicklaus, by winning the U.S. Open, for instance, is automatically invited to the next 10 Opens. Borg's winning Wimbledon means nothing when the next Wimbledon arrives; to play here this year, if he didn't agree to play in nine other tournaments, Borg would have had to play qualifying matches along with such as Schalk Van Der Merwe.
This is an indignity the great one would not suffer for his art. And so, as men go on bended knee to stroke green paint on the garden fences, even as men line the stadium walls with hothouse hydrangeas (they bloom naturally on their own in summer, which happens late one January in July), the 105th Wimbledon begins Monday without the game's preeminent player of the last decade.
Not that anyone here is in mourning. There's been a bigger game going on in the Falklands. Also, the English have high hopes in the World Cup soccer tournament now under way in Spain, where an English march to the final would leave Wimbledon of secondary importance to the public. Wimbledon lost more luster, too, when four other men ranked in the top 10--Ivan Lendl, Jose-Luis Clerc, Guillermo Vilas and Eliot Teltscher--skipped it for reasons ranging from grass to war.
"Borg's absence means a bit less since he didn't win it last year," said Arthur Ashe, who won Wimbledon in 1975 and now is captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team.
Yet Ashe said Wimbledon went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate Borg in his dispute with the rules makers. The Wimbledon chairman, Sir Brian Burnett, flew to Monte Carlo to meet with the Men's International Pro Tennis Council.
"I'd never known Sir Burnett to make a special trip anywhere on behalf of a player," Ashe said. "But he came to us just to plead Wimbledon's position to allow Borg to play. In essence, he said, 'We don't care how you do it, but let's figure out a way to let the guy play.'
"I'd never known any Wimbledon chairman to do that. They wouldn't even condescend to do something like that. But when a guy wins your title five times in a row, he has a special place. . . Borg is very, very special to Wimbledon."
Ashe could think of no other player so highly ranked who ever skipped Wimbledon.
"No. No one. You just wouldn't do it."
Come Monday morning, though, Borg will be taking the sun on a yacht somewhere off the coast of Greece, according to a friend. On his $3,000-a-day yacht, will Borg have second thoughts?
Ashe said, "He talked to us at Monte Carlo for an hour and he has absolutely no qualms. Zero. No remorse. No regrets."
Little men on bended knee painted the iron garden fence behind Ashe. The hydrangeas glowed. On Centre Court, where Borg has won Wimbledon or lost to the champion in each of the last seven years, men rolled the lawn level. Here, not on a yacht, is where Borg belongs. This is his kingdom.
Ashe smiled a bit. "His ghost is roaming around here somewhere."
We have, in Ashe, a nearing-40 romantic whose life has been made rich by tennis and who regards its icons, among them Wimbledon, as precious. To skip Wimbledon is heresy to such a believer, and so it is to Dennis Ralston, once the quintessential tennis brat but now, nearing 40, a traditionalist who says of Borg, "It would be nice if he were here, but his absence won't diminish the event."
It might hurt, Ralston said, if Borg were playing every week and were No. 1 in the world and chose to pass Wimbledon out of spite. That's not the case. Borg simply has abdicated. He is not playing anywhere. He is in self-exile on a yacht off Greece. Better this way, romantic Ralston seems to say, than to have the game's best player jilting its loveliest lady.
"In the long run, the game continues," Ralston said. "There are new players who come on. Look at McEnroe. He wasn't that good his first year here (1977), but he reached the semifinals, with some good breaks, and he was a new star. The game always has to be bigger than the players. It's like the theater business. It doesn't die when a big star pulls out of a play."
Athletes who preach resentment about major championships rarely win them. They prophesy failure to make it easier to accept. Ralston has heard the complaints about Wimbledon.
"Some players have complained about the stuffiness of this tournament," he said. "This tournament has a tremendous amount of character and atmosphere. It's the best."
Ask Ralston if he remembers his first Wimbledon. Ask him what W meant to a kid growing up, and the erstwhile brat turns poet.
"It was a dream," he said, standing in a gentle rain, leaning against the stadium of his dreams.
"I'd heard of Wimbledon, I was hoping someday I could play here, never thinking that I would. It was the ultimate like golfers think of Augusta, playing the Masters.
"My first Wimbledon was 1960. I was 17. The biggest thing is we won the doubles, my first year over, with Rafael Osuna."
He remembers more.
"I remember the flat. I was staying with Rafael. There were 235 steps up. Very top of the building. It had a bathroom two floors down. Bed and breakfast for a pound a day. Couldn't beat it for a pound a day. And the car they sent to pick you up for the tournament. I just couldn't believe we were here."
This is, plainly, a man who would not spend June and July on a yacht.
"I was really in awe of the place, and I still am."
A bit later, a limousine pulled up in front of the stadium and a thin old man worked his way out of the back seat.
"I'm very pleased to be here 60 years later," said Jean Robert Borotra, 83, who won Wimbledon singles championships in 1924 and 1926.
He hurried into the foyer leading to Centre Court. The old fellow who wasn't on a yacht carried two rackets.