The pomp and ceremony that is the opening day of Wimbledon is something that can be missed if one blinks. The defending men's champion marches onto Centre Court shortly before 2 p.m., turns and bows to the royal box and prepares to begin play.
The crowd, jammed into every corner of the old stadium, gives the champion a warm round of applause as he bows to the Duke and Duchess of Kent. As he warms up and looks around him, he is bound to feel a wave of nostalgia, remembering the glory of the previous year.
"It was," Boris Becker said today, "the best feeling I've ever had."
For the losing finalist, there is no such warmth, no such moment to remember. In fact, for Kevin Curren, relegated today to court No. 3, there was only frustration, anger and -- shockingly -- defeat. He became the first man to lose an opening-round match the year after finishing as runner-up since they began keeping such records in 1913.
Becker only hung around Centre Court for 79 minutes, making quick work of overmatched Eduardo Bengoechea, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1; the suspense ended when Becker broke Bengoechea to start the match. Becker lost exactly 10 points on his serve and was in the royal box presenting the duchess with a $4,600 check -- Becker's contribution of his day's winnings to UNICEF -- in short order.
"It was just like last year before the final, waiting in the little room," Becker said. "My opponent didn't know what was going on. He asked me if we had to bow and he asked me everything and I told him what to do."
Curren was not as fortunate as Becker today. From the beginning, it was apparent he was not the same player who blew away John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors last year. Curren lost his serve to West German Eric Jelen in the fourth game of the first set, lost that set, won the next two, lost the fourth and then blew four match points in the fifth.
He finally paid for those mistakes, and Jelen won, 6-4, 6-7 (7-4), 2-6, 6-4, 12-10, in a match that lasted more than three hours and ended just as the inevitable opening-day rainstorm sent everyone scurrying for cover.
Everyone, that is, except for Ivan Lendl. The No. 1 men's seed had gone inside for the first time 42 minutes before play was called off. One year ago on opening day, Lendl and Mel Purcell played on in the rain after everyone else had gone home. Lendl was furious when he walked into the locker room and found it empty.
Today, when the first drops began falling, Grand Prix supervisor Ken Farrar gave Lendl and Leonardo Lavalle permission to vacate court No. 1 with Lendl leading, 7-6 (7-2), 1-0 -- Lendl having saved three set points at 4-5. Play went on elsewhere for 42 minutes. Finally, Farrar ordered Lendl and Lavalle back.
The skies were getting even blacker when the players trooped back. "Are we going to play one point or two?" Lendl asked chair umpire Jeremy Shales. One. Lavalle won it, the skies opened and this time everyone went inside. The rain lasted about an hour, but it was enough to call off play for the rest of the evening on all but Centre Court. There, Mats Wilander, the second seed, came back shortly after 6 p.m. and beat Scott Davis of the United States, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, 6-4.
The rain did not come in time to save 11th-seeded Curren. "The guy just played better than I did today," Curren said forlornly. "I gave it my best shot, played as hard as I could and it wasn't enough. There's life after tennis, but it's disappointing with the field as wide open this year as it is."
It is more wide open now. Jelen is only the No. 5 player in West Germany, but he is a rising talent -- no Becker, but a 21-year-old with a lot of potential. His development was set back a year ago when he had to spend three months on Army duty, which Becker has avoided by establishing residence in Monte Carlo.
Jelen still is in the Army, but in a special section reserved for athletes. In fact, he said he doesn't even know his rank -- "I'm just a soldier." His tennis rank has risen recently to No. 32. Jelen is quick and volleys well. "He moved a lot better than I thought he would," said Curren, 28, who often hit what looked to be good returns only to have Jelen twist his body, spear the ball and punch a winning volley past him.
That was not Curren's only problem. From the beginning, his big weapon, the serve, was as much a hindrance as a help. By the time the match ended, he had 20 double faults. He clearly was an unhappy man, flouncing around the court talking to himself -- "Are you going to serve two percent first serves all day?" he asked at one point -- and arguing frequently with chair umpire Roger Smith.
Curren received a warning in the second set for a visible obscenity and then argued that warning angrily enough to be given a point penalty for verbal abuse a moment later. That meant, serving at 5-6, he began the game trailing, 0-15. He survived that game and the second-set tie breaker.
Curren lost the first set when, serving at 4-5, he double faulted to go down, 15-40, and then chipped a volley into the net after Jelen had cracked a return at his feet.
"I talked to Boris Becker . . . and he told me if Curren plays his best I have no chance to win," said Jelen. "But after the first set I knew he was not playing his best and I thought I had a chance to win. If you win a set, you can win a match."
Not always. Curren survived the second set, double faulting three times to lose his serve while serving for the set at 5-4, but winning the tie breaker when Jelen couldn't get a serve into play. Curren rolled through the third set, but let down again and Jelen quickly took the fourth set.
When word begins to spread at Wimbledon that a seed is in trouble on an outside court, it is difficult for the seed not to feel as if the whole world is watching. The stands around the court are quickly packed and crowds gather on the players' and members' balconies overlooking the courts.
The crowds were everywhere as the fifth set began. The players proceeded on serve for nine games, but at 4-5, Jelen got in trouble, netting a backhand volley to give Curren match point at 30-40. But Curren netted a second serve with a weak backhand and Jelen saved two more match points with service winners and survived the game.
They went to 6-6, but at Wimbledon there is no tie breaker in the fifth set. Jelen got to break point with a gorgeous backhand return and then broke with a chipped backhand return at Curren's feet.
He did a Jimmy Connors-pump, changed sides and promptly lost his serve with a horrid game. "I just got so nervous there," he said. "I had been serving so well and then I just lost it. After that, I thought my chances weren't so good."
They weren't when Curren held and had another match point at 8-7. But Jelen reached back for an ace and held. "I was a little bit lucky," he said.
The match was beyond luck at this point. The grass was wet and Curren was down time and again, diving for balls. At 10-all, Jelen, after botching one break point, cracked a forehand down the line that Curren covered, but volleyed wide. Jelen had the lead again. This time he emphatically served out the match, ending with a clean service winner.
The storm came moments later and 45 of the 64 scheduled matches were held over until Tuesday. So, on day one at Wimbledon, a tradition was preserved.