"Quiet, please."

The umpire was firm, this stir in the stands coming at an especially tense part of Kevin Curren versus Tim Mayotte in the Wimbledon men's singles quarterfinals. The titter went on, the umpire became stern: "Quiet, please."

What had caused such commotion around Centre Court of tennis' shrine? Had the queen's skirt suddenly split? Had an ambassador fallen into the ad court?

Something much more cosmic. The sun had come out.

Welcome to England. Welcome to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, where croquet once dwarfed tennis the way the NFL dwarfs marbles.

As sporting meccas go, this one has more charm than expected. That's assuming you stretch logic to the limit and admit that the tweedy Brahmins who run the place are as human as those they allow in for two weeks to foot the bills for the year.

When the meek inherit the earth, British tennis fans will get most of it. They are told where to line up two hours before the gates open each day, and how. Single file, the queue stretches at least a half-mile. Nobody much minds.

Curiously, the officials keep everybody in step, except for many of the players that most pay dearly to see. Wills that refuse to yield melt, ears turn deaf in an instant when a John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors turns naughty.

If some sort of massive compacter ever squeezed Fenway Park so that only the infield remained, you would have the general outline of Centre Court. The dominant color is green. Masters green, if you will. And mauve, which is purple with its nose stuck in the air.

Beyond Centre Court, and all the outer ones, the atmosphere is surprisingly cheery. Open and varied, like Belmont Park before a major race.

The strawberries and cream are as slightly overrated as they are slightly overpriced. A chipwich at Wimbledon is just a wee bit more than at a Gaithersburg 7-11.

Such a variety of venues came slowly. One day, years ago, after officials had given grudging permission to sell iced lollies on a trial basis, chairman of the club Herman David asked the caterer how they were doing. He replied: "I regret to say, sir, they're selling magnificently."

The supply and demand of sport abounds here. Scalpers make their pitch every few paces outside the walls. Whether with a tobacco road lilt just before an ACC tournament or with a Robert Morley clip, "need two" is universal.

But the most attractive matches into the semifinals have started with dozens of seats empty. Shades of Carolina-Georgia Tech near noon the first day of the ACCs.

One gets just a page past the preface of Max Robertson's history of the tournament before realizing the degree of objectivity at hand.

"Wimbledon is magic . . . Without question the most important title any player can aspire to," he wrote. So how come Bjorn Borg refused to play here last year rather than endure the indignity of having to qualify? Of course, Robertson is closer to right than wrong.

Wimbledon is one of those events everyone with the barest interest in notices. Small-town parsons even wager a buck on the Kentucky Derby; the world seems to condone violence before a heavyweight title fight; for a fortnight here, we worry over whether McEnroe's mind is strung as well as his racket.

Tennis pilgrims insist the Wimbledon mood is more upbeat this year. The rules are as rigid as ever, but executed more civilly now. Possibly, this is reaction to Michael Mewshaw's brilliant and brilliantly timed book, "Short Circuit." While reporting all the evils in a sport he clearly loves, Mewshaw gives Wimbledon a good spanking:

". . . Pampered, paid under the table, and protected by compliant umpires, the top players have lost patience with Wimbledon, which prides itself on treating all outsiders with uniform disdain . . . In matters petty and profound, the All England Club has, until recently, refused to acknowledge that the players had legitimate gripes.

"Instead, Wimbledon chose to establish itself, with the abject cooperation of much of the press, as a theme park, something along the lines of Disneyland, in which crowds gather annually to worship the real and imagined virtues of the nation's past."

Mewshaw shot a brutal forehand volley toward Roy McKelvie, the self-styled "gruff old silvery lion" who controls press credentials. He implied that McKelvie was born rude and with a scowl, and made maintaining both a lifelong mission.

Well, ol' Roy's been declawed. Our meeting was adversarial. He glanced at my letter of introduction and said what a pity it was that I'd traveled 3,000 miles without being able to see an important match. He sounded as though the world would tumble off its axis before I'd get closer than Court 14.

Turned out it could be done. Turned out a Centre Court seat, and an unobstructed one at that, could be had without an international incident. Even turned out the old boy can smile.

In a day or so, he was volunteering his considerable Wimbledon experience. The yelling in the stands pretty much started with Borg in '73, he said, "all those teeny-boppers creating that aura of youth. It's changed here, like the world's changed. Ever since the Beatles, the world's been different."

McKelvie shook his head. "You don't see women in hats any more," he said. "My daughter, Angela, popped in with one yesterday and I believe it was the only one. You used to see hats. Big hats."

That used to worry Rex Sterry, how to get those large brims interrupting the lines of sight off royal heads without losing his. Sterry's diplomacy was flawless. But he once was making polite conversation in the royal box with an African monarch who had stayed mostly silent through every match. As the king was rising to leave, Sterry asked what his impressions had been.

"Yes, thank you," he said. "I have enjoyed myself here at Henley."