The day the Allies went sailing for Normandy with an idea of saving the world, the weather came up gawdawful. It was dark and stormy, with squalls all around that fateful day in June of '44, and somewhere British Lt. Col. Ted Tinling looked up at the gathering storm and said, "Thank heaven we don't have a Wimbledon this year."
Just a war.
"Yes, just a war," agreed Tinling, once a tennis pro, later a tennis dress designer and now a Wimbledon pooh-bah distinguished by his shaved head and the diamond in his left ear.
Well, this year Wimbledon isn't so lucky as to have an invasion taking people's minds off the frightful weather.
They started this Wimbledon on Centre Court, and they may finish it on an ark. Four days in five now have been, in the quaint expression of the lords of tennis here, "moist." Today was so moist that ducks took taxis. It rained eight hours and delayed play until 6 o'clock.
At 6:58 p.m., a strange orange orb appeared in the sky. Pam Shriver, about to serve on Centre Court, was stunned by the sight of her shadow on the turf.
Then, lifting her eyes over the stadium roof, the teen-ager from Baltimore bowed deeply, twice, in the direction of this celestial miracle that we Americans take for granted. A fellow taking notes wrote down, sun????
Weather historians insist that Wimbledon begins precisely six weeks before the first Monday in August because such a date is the absolute propitious time for a holiday here. Until 1952, historians say, "Wimbledon weather" meant sunshine. Every good Brit piled the family into the car and headed for the beach at Southend-on-Sea.
Wimbledon weather this week means it's going to rain on Ted Tinling's shaved head the way it hasn't rained since the invasion. "Yes, I think it is," referee Fred Hoyles said when someone asked if this was the worst weather in his 15 years at Wimbledon. "I don't remember so many days with so much interruption."
Attendance is down about 40,000 from last year's first five days. Revenue is down almost $300,000. This is due to a subway strike more than the absence of five of the world's top 10 players. And, of course, a few spectators have stayed at home rather than go out in the noonday rain.
A few, but likely not many, have stayed out of the rain. The British, after all, are different from you and me. This difference is in answer to nature's protective adaptation clause, in which all beings evolve in defense against their environments. Rhinos have thick skins against the heat, chameleons change colors against predators, and Englishmen grow umbrellas from their right arms against the certainty of getting moist.
Until this week, the worst Wimbledon weather may have come in 1922. That's when Wimbledon moved from its original site at Worpole Road to the present Church Road spot. It rained so much that year the courts were flooded. Made of new sod brought in from the coast, these courts became so wet that players discovered live shrimp wriggling about on them.
"It was the pulpit who said this was entirely the remuneration of the gods for turning tennis into a concrete affair," said Tinling, who at 72 bridges the half-century in which tennis evolved from a lawn party into a stadium event.
"This is," he said, "an accepted part of English masochistic life. The English believe every privilege is to be paid for. This is the Victorian ethic. We had a wonderful spell of weather in May, with gorgeous sunshine and people said, 'We're going to pay for this.' "
It feels good to hurt so much, eh? "When Virginia Wade (the British heroine) played the other evening, it was the ultimate English fiesta," Tinling said. "The spectators had suffered all day, apprehensive about the party they planned back in April. They had all come from Birmingham in their polyester suits, and nothing was going to stop them.
"They sat there all day, soaked to the skin, and suddenly the sun comes out for 10 seconds, and they all open their picnic baskets and say, 'Isn't this wonderful?' Their darling Virginia came back from the jaws of death, which is their greatest joy. It was absolutely the Port Stanley spirit. It used to be the Dunkirk spirit.
"It was the most English thing you've ever seen . . . They said, 'We were rewarded for our suffering.' "
And now, it seems, Wimbledon is to suffer for being so grand the last three years. Already floating toward oblivion, this tournament will crash ashore should John McEnroe and/or Jimmy Connors lose before the final.
"Wimbledon is very much like a wine list," Tinling said. "And not every year can be a vintage year. If you look at the list and see Kodes-Metrevelli 1973, you don't even read it."
In 1973, when the top players were on strike, Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia defeated Alex Metrevelli of the Soviet Union.
"But now we have had three vintage years running. And how many times in any wine list do you get four vintage years running? Never."
He pronounced it nev-ah.