On the first day of Wimbledon, perhaps the only guarantee is that someone with lofty ambitions and anxiety to match will succumb to someone without either. Today, when perennial contenders Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Billie Jean King progressed in straight sets, the victim was Guillermo Vilas.
Vilas, the No. 4 seed, arrived at Wimbledon with apprehensions about playing on grass and apprehensions about his playing future. Two weeks ago, he was given a one-year suspension by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council for accepting guaranteed appearance money at a tournament in Rotterdam this March. He was playing pending an appeal.
Although he led, two sets to none, and had match point in the third, his mind seemed elsewhere and he lost, 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (9-7), 7-5, 6-2, to Nduka Odizor of Nigeria. Odizor is 23 and they call him the Duke.
When the match began, the sun was still high above Centre Court and the Duke of Kent was still seated in the royal box. When it ended 4 hours 4 minutes later, Odizor stretched as far as the day was long to make the winning backhand volley. The other duke was long gone. "He probably didn't know I was the Duke of Nigeria," Odizor said in jest.
Last year, Vilas, an Argentine, did not play Wimbledon because of the Falklands war. This year, he and countryman Jose-Luis Clerc, No. 7, might as well have stayed home. Clerc lost, too, to Claudio Panatta, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2.
"For two months they have been bugging me, saying they are investigating me," Vilas said. "It's like a cold war. It's not easy to play."
These were not the only upsets. Steve Denton, the ninth seed, lost, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6, 6-3, to Chris Lewis. More startling still, the weather was glorious and unusually mild. The St. John's Ambulance Corps estimated 30 to 40 fainting spells. "It was such a sensational day, I'd be sick not to be here," said Britain's own Virginia Wade, who won, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, over Amanda Tobin.
McEnroe, No. 2, whose temper was as mild as the day, won easily if not prettily over Ben Testerman, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2. He had a few words for officials who called a handful of foot faults against him, but none loud enough to be heard at courtside. Later, he admitted the calls may have been right.
Connors, the defending champion and No. 1 seed, played the opening match on Centre Court as tradition decrees and won, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, over Eddie Edwards. Connors is hitting the ball as well as ever, although his bow to the royal box--a shrug, really--left a bit to be desired.
King, seeded 10th, has won more Wimbledon titles than anyone else (20), and she made more history today, becoming the first woman to be showcased in an opening-day match. Until this year, when the draw was expanded to 128, women did not play until Tuesday. "I like this place pretty much," said King, who won her 254th Wimbledon match, 7-5, 6-3, over Elizabeth Sayers. "It might as well have been me."
The veterans talked about the first day here, how much they look forward to it; and how much they look forward to it ending.
"The first match is very important, to get the anxieties out of the system so you can go on and play," said Connors. "I got through the first round. So now I can take it easy and go out and play . . . practice was getting boring.
"It was time to serve them up and get the tournament going . . . my anxieties got up to play the tournament, for Monday to come, for 2 p.m. to come. I was counting down: 48 hours, 24 hours, 18 hours, on to 2 p.m."
"You look forward to it for so long, the day you wake up and it's finally here you have to get used to the surroundings all over again," King said.
But the vibes were right. She had gone to Court 1 to commune with the spirits of champions past. The Toronto Blue Jays, for whom her brother, Randy Moffitt, pitches, won on Sunday. "(Astronaut) Sally Ride, whom I know pretty well, is having a great ride," she said. "It's one of her dreams come true. What a great way to start Wimbledon."
These were feelings Odizor could not know and Vilas could not share. Odizor played here for the first time a year ago and lost in the second round. Vilas, who has never gotten past the quarterfinals, had other things on his mind. "I'm ready to play," he said. "In the changing room, they say, 'You know what happened at the (ATP) meeting?' I wanted to play and get ready for my match."
He said he wasn't 100 percent there, but for two sets it was just enough. Even when he fell behind, 1-4, in the third, he caught up to force a tie breaker and won the first three points. Odizor revived and won the next four points, though, and from 5-5, Odizor won the next point with a backhand cross-court winner, setting up set point.
But Vilas still had something left. A potent return of serve forced Odizor into an error and they were tied at 6. Odizor served and followed it to net, as he had all day. But this volley went wide and Vilas had match point.
He played it poorly. Inexplicably, he came in behind an approach shot although he had been deep behind the base line. Then he was expecting a low ball, something he could handle at his feet. Instead, Odizor passed him with a wicked forehand winner down the line.
In the fourth set, Odizor's confidence grew, and the last set was his. He broke immediately and held for 2-0. Vilas saved two break points in the third game but was broken ultimately on a forehand pass in the fifth. Odizor was everywhere, doing everything: topspins, lobs, drops, volleys, reflex volleys, passing shots.
Strangely, unlike Connors, McEnroe and King, he was not nervous, although he expected to be. Perhaps he was remembering the days in Lagos when he was 15 and Dr. Robert Wren, a visiting psychology professor from the University of Houston, saw him play. Wren thought he was good, too good for the competition in Nigeria, and urged him to come to America. But the federation was against it. So Wren paid his way and invited him into his home.
Odizor finished high school at St. Thomas in Houston and went on to the University of Houston, where he met Akeem Abdul Olajuwon. He and the 7-foot basketball star had to become friends, Odizor said, because they were "home boys."
In 1981 Odizor was ranked 204th in the world. In 1982 he graduated with a degree in marketing, got married, was a semifinalist in the NCAA championship and was ranked 80th. Today he was on Centre Court. Before the match a reporter asked how he felt. He said, "I can't imagine any serious tennis professional who hasn't dreamed about playing at Centre Court at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open or the French," he said.
He wasn't disappointed. "I couldn't ask for anything more," he said.