At 3:27 p.m. today, two days before the start of The Championship known as Wimbledon, Mrs. G.R. Cox and Mrs. P.E. King took on Mrs. C.P. Joy and Mrs. P.J.A. Roberts in a friendly game of doubles on center court.
For 50 weeks a year, this grassy rectangle is the most pampered sod in the kingdom. But tradition dictates that four club members break it in ever so gently before the real tennis begins. The umpire solemnly intoned the score as the ball boys stood rigidly in their places. Pigeons cooed their approval under the eaves.
Here, under a cloudless sky, the turbulence that is tennis seemed far away. For a moment, the WCT suit against the Volvo Grand Prix Circuit was forgotten. The threatened strike by broadcasting employes that may black out BBC coverage of the tournament seemed remote. The fines totaling $5,750 that put John McEnroe perilously close to a mandatory 21-day suspension were forgotten in the silence. The only guarantee that anyone was making was that the weather couldn't possibly last.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club and its arcane ways stand resolutely as a reminder of the past. But Guillermo Vilas, who has been suspended for one year and fined $20,000 after allegedly accepting guaranteed appearance money from a tournament in Rotterdam, could find no refuge.
He stood by a practice court today answering questions. Carefully, he said, because his answers can be used against him. Sometime, probably in the next two weeks, his attorneys will file his appeal. Another lawyer is investigating the case for him in Rotterdam. He is eligible to play until the appeal is resolved, if he can concentrate on it. "The timing?" he said. "It's not easy. I think about it. I am ready for this tournament."
His coach, Ion Tiriac, reportedly accepted the payment for him. Sources have told The Washington Post the sum was $100,000.
Vilas said he had learned of the investigation through newspapers, and this disturbs him. "You have to prove you are not guilty," he said. "It's completely unreal. It's the same thing. They put you in prison and then you have to prove you're innocent."
The tournament was fined only $10,000. "I liken it to plea bargaining," said Ray Moore, a member of the Men's International Professional Tennis Council. "The same thing happens in American criminal courts every day."
Ironically, the council asked Vilas to play the tournament when Jimmy Connors dropped out. His appearance there enabled him to receive $400,000 in bonus money that had been withheld because he was one tournament short of the designated number for 1982.
Top players including John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Connors have issued statements supporting Vilas. But as Arther Ashe, a former member of the council, said, "What does that mean? Are they going to open their books, too? If they say, 'I accepted a guarantee,' they'd get suspended, too."
"It's my problem, really," Vilas said. "I didn't speak to them at all. It came from them. I just called John to thank him. I understand everyone is concerned. I don't know if they are willing to stand with me."
Connors, who had just finished practicing, said, "He's about the farthest thing from my mind right now. Tennis is in trouble because of it. It's a difficult situation, but I have other things on my mind. When it's over, then I'm sure there will be a few things said or done."
Now, apparently, the game has come full cycle. Before open tennis, under-the-table payments were the norm. "The numbers were minuscule," Moore said. "Roy Emerson might have gotten $800. Ray Moore might have gotten $300."
In those days, a top player probably received as much in a year as today's players can get under the table in a week. Guarantees today are both a result of and an indication of the phenomonal growth of the sport.
Clearly, Vilas has become a test case, not only of the guarantee rule but of the Pro Council and its ability to govern what has previously seemed ungovernable. "We're having growing pains as a young child would," said Stan Smith, a candidate to replace Ashe on the MIPTC. "The discipline is starting to set in so possibly we can have some order out of the confusion."
The argument is as old as philosophy. Top players (those who can command guarantees) argue every man for himself. If that man happens to be No. 1 in the world and the promoter happens to have $100,000 available because he will generate that much more in gate receipts, so be it. The greater good does not appear to be the concern. Nor does the appearance that appearance money conveys. They insist that receiving a guarantee in advance of the tournament does not diminish their incentive or deceive the public.
"That's the philosophical question we're all wrestling with right now," Moore said. "I'm not sure if it's good or bad for the game. In golf, guarantees are part of the game. Tennis is a little more intricate and involved because we have a two-tiered system, a major tournament and a small one each week. A lot of events are propped up by the guarantee system. If you do away with the system, some players will lose their job.
"Morally, I think the guarantee rule is right. They should not have to pay players to appear. But how do you do away with it? Are the superstars being justly compensated for their market value? That's the question we're asking. It's a pity to have a system that players would have to cheat on."
Moore points out that the singles winner of a tournament earns 20 percent of the total prize money, that Lendl, the top money winner last year, earned $2,028,850--four times as much as Craig Stadler, the top money winner in golf.
Still, the question remains whether there is some equitable way of compensating a top player for his market value. Ashe, who is adamantly opposed to under-the-table payments, said his mind is open to a system such as the one in motor racing, in which "the public knows a guy gets a certain amount because he's John McEnroe and then there is prize money, too. In racing, there is a certain amount you get because you've won the pole position and a certain amount if you led the race through a certain number of laps."
Ashe says the best thing that can come out of Vilas' case is a consensus about what a guarantee is and what is permissible. But no matter what the rule is, it is uncertain if anyone will obey it, or if anyone will be able to enforce it.
Tennis may be the last vestige of free enterprise and free, though sometimes unprintable, speech. Ashe and Moore believe one solution would be required attendance at a school run by the Association of Tennis Professionals, where players would learn the rule book and a code of conduct.
"They need to be reeducated to their responsibilities," Ashe said. "In return, they get the privilege of playing for $26 million last year."
After all, tennis was once a game of privilege.