For 108 years they have played tennis here. Always, they have played it on green grass. Always, the grass courts of the All England Club have been treated about the same way royalty is treated here.
These are the hallowed lawns. Every player who comes here talks about walking onto Centre Court simply to be there, to touch the grass where the greats have trod.
Now, there are whispers here that someday the grass might be gone. "They've played on grass here since time began," Jimmy Connors said. "But they played the U.S. Open on grass forever at Forest Hills, too, and they changed. Times change, things change."
One indication change is coming occurred today when club officials, representatives of the two players unions and the men's and women's pro councils met with shoe manufacturers to discuss grass-court shoes that, Wimbledon officials believe, damage the delicate courts.
The meeting, requested several weeks ago by Wimbledon, was called to ask the manufacturers to try to produce a standard grass-court shoe that will not cut up the courts as much as those that have special gripper studs on the bottom.
Wimbledon would like new shoes and new rules standardizing what shoes may be worn to be ready for the 1986 tournament.
Wear and tear from shoes is just one problem with grass courts. Change is not a simple matter here, where things usually change so slowly no one notices.
"It will never happen," said Ion Tiriac, a former Romanian Davis Cup player, about the possibility of abandoning the grass surface. "Remember, these aren't Americans. They changed their surface three times in 10 years. The English won't change once in a hundred."
But there are those who argue that grass simply isn't practical anymore, that in an era of quick-drying hard courts -- ones that are of medium speed -- grass is outdated.
"This is the world's most prestigious tournament and it's played on the least accessible surface," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe, the men's champion here 10 years ago. "Grass isn't practical. Two weeks ago at Queens, guys couldn't get any practice time because of the rain and they were really ticked off.
"I'm just afraid it might get to the point where they just say the hell with this. I'm a traditionalist. I fear for the grass."
Some of the problems with grass are basic: It is very expensive to maintain, so there are fewer grass courts around, making preparation difficult.
Also, grass dries slowly. "Other places, the rain stops, you wait 20 minutes and then go play," Connors said. "Here, it can be 40 minutes, an hour, maybe longer. It makes the waiting really tough because you have no idea when you're going to have to go on."
What's more, June is almost always wet in England. This month, there have been two days without rain. With the French Open ending two weeks before Wimbledon begins, any rain means practice time is limited. Lots of rain means it is nonexistent.
There has been talk in the Men's Pro Council about moving up the French Open a week and Wimbledon back a week. But that wouldn't happen until 1987 at the earliest.
Even a schedule change would not make grass dry faster or be less slippery. In an era in which tennis tradition has all but disappeared in many places -- even Wimbledon went to a Sunday final because of U.S. television money -- people like Ashe fear the pressure to change the surface will continue to build.
R.E.H. (Buzzer) Hadingham, chairman of the Wimbledon Tournament Committee, says emphatically that Ashe has nothing to fear. "Wimbledon will always be played on grass," he said. "I know there are those who say that the courts stay too wet when it rains, but if we had an artificial surface we would still have a lot of rain and the courts would still get wet.
"The Australians are giving up grass (to go to an artificial surface) only because that's the only way to get the government to build their new complex. Now, the Grand Slam will be played on four surfaces: grass, concrete, clay and the new Australian surface. If someone wins a Grand Slam on four surfaces, he will be a truly fantastic champion. That is good for tennis."
And Hadingham added, "We know some people think the game would be fairer on a uniform surface. We're sorry but we just don't see it that way. Golf might be fairer if all golf courses were identical. Would people want that?"
Hadingham speaks for the leadership of the All England Club when he defends the grass. He also speaks for the older players and at least some of the current ones. Mats Wilander, even after losing his first-round match here Wednesday, blanched at the question of removing the grass.
"Sure, they should remove the grass -- if they want to kill the tournament," he said. "How can you not play Wimbledon on grass?"
Easy, say some in tennis' current leadership. Ted Tinling, who has been in the game almost 60 years, thinks the day could come when the grass disappears here. "If you are a professional you want to be able to do your job as well as possible," he said.
"I think there will be pressure from the players to give them a better surface to work on. I know the current leadership of the club doesn't want to change but when younger members move up to power, they may be more flexible."
Agent Donald Dell thinks it's possible Wimbledon might bend. "I could see them going to an artificial grass surface because of the problems getting real grass to dry," he said. "Look at this tournament right now. We've had rain for three days and if we get any more at all, they're going to be in serious trouble getting through.
"It would help . . . if they came up with some kind of covering at least for Centre and No. 1 that would keep the grass completely dry when it rained. That way, you could at least have some play right away after a storm."
Wimbledon has made changes. In the last five years, it has built a dozen -- uncovered -- practice courts. It also built four new courts for play, bringing the total to 18. This year, for the first time, all outside courts have covers.
But that might not be enough, especially with weather like this year. "It does become Russian roulette after a while," Hadingham conceded.
"When the (U.S.) Open changed, (from grass to clay to cement) the tournament was better in the long run," Connors said. "Wimbledon is going to be Wimbledon no matter what you play it on. It's the time the tournament's been around that matters, not the surface."
Tiriac disagrees. "The Open is the Open but Forest Hills was Forest Hills," he said. "It had a feel that Flushing Meadow never will."
Feel and atmosphere and tradition are very much part of what makes Wimbledon unique. "Wimbledon without grass wouldn't be Wimbledon," said Chris Lewis, the losing finalist here in 1983. I can't begin to imagine Wimbledon without grass. Sure, they have delays, but they've managed to finish the tournament every year.
"You come here to play Wimbledon. That means grass courts."