LONDON -- One floor up from the locker rooms and the players' tea room at the All England Club there is a balcony that overlooks 12 of Wimbledon's 16 outside courts. It is a wonderful place to sit and talk, a superb vantage point if you are an esthete and a terrific place to watch several matches going on at once.

Late Tuesday afternoon, much of the serious British tennis media -- serious being the ones who write about play rather than about playing around -- crowded eagerly onto the balcony. Before them, a rather unlikely drama was unfolding.

On Court 3, Andrew Castle -- "The English No. 1," to the papers here -- was dueling with Andrei Olkhovksky, a Soviet who got into the tournament through qualifying. Just to their left, Steve Shaw -- "The English No. 2," -- was playing Todd Witsken, the kid from Carmel, Ind., who beat Jimmy Connors at the U.S. Open last year and was so dumbfounded he is almost winless since then.

What was remarkable was not the Brits playing or the Brits watching. What was remarkable was that the Brits were winning. When Castle and Shaw each won their opening sets, Malcolm Folley of The Daily Express couldn't resist. "This could represent a shift in world power," he said. "We're beating an American and a Russian."

Castle and Shaw went on to win and, before the day was over, they were joined in the second round by Chris Bailey, who upset another American, Gary Donnelly. Pick up the London papers Wednesday morning and these three victories will be treated roughly comparably to the Battle of Britain.

British tennis is, to put it mildly, in disarray. The country that hosts the world's most prestigious tournament did not have one male player who qualified on the basis of ranking. All seven British men got in by way of the wild card, the free passes every tournament is granted, usually to get local players into the draw.

That's local as in Washington, D.C., or Boston, Mass., not the entire United Kingdom. But that's the way tennis is in this country right now. The joke here is that the only male player Britain got into Wimbledon this year was the statue of Fred Perry that stands just inside the main gate.

Perry won here in 1934, 1935 and 1936. That was the last time a British man won the title. Wait, it gets worse. No Briton has been in the final since 1938, the semifinals since 1973 or even the quarterfinals since that year.

It is not so bad among the women, where Ann Haydon Jones won in 1969 and Virginia Wade in 1977. Four British women got into the field this year on their own merits, let by Jo Durie, once the No. 4 player in the world who is now ranked No. 41 after, by her own admission, the pressure of her ranking caused her game to go sour.

But Durie's No. 41 is hot stuff compared to Castle at 165, Shaw at 199 and Jeremy Bates at 239. They're 1-2-3 in Britain. Since the retirement of John Lloyd, who was ranked 23rd in 1978, the year before he married Chris Evert, the Brits haven't had anyone to carry the Union Jack.

"We just don't seem to have that sort of nasty fight in us as tennis players here," Castle said after pulling through in four sets against Olkhovsky. "When I went to college {at Wichita State} I would play in pickup basketball games in the gym and walk away with a bloody nose. That's the American attitude.

"We don't have that in tennis here. We have it in soccer, in cricket, in rugby. But not in tennis. That's what we need -- what I need -- to be successful. At this level, if you aren't pumped up to win, you don't win."

It isn't so much getting pumped up as getting tougher. Castle and Shaw, both 24, are not your usual Brits. Each attended college in the United States and each says he learned how to compete there. But that hasn't prevented them from struggling. Castle won a match here last year, took Mats Wilander to five sets in the second round and was hailed as a national hero.

It was not until last week that he won another Grand Prix match. Then, he blasted the press for putting too much pressure on him after his Wimbledon "success" last year. Shaw went almost two years without winning a Grand Prix match before breaking through at Queens two weeks ago. He is now being coached by Lloyd and says he is willing to give up "the good life" to win tennis matches.

But even if Castle and Shaw improve their ranking, there is no sign of a true British champion anywhere on the horizon. "Let's face it," Castle said. "I'm not going to win this thing or get to the final or the semifinal. You have to be realistic."

Reality in this country is mediocre tennis. It has been for a long time. Why? More than anywhere, even more than in the United States, tennis is the domain of the wealthy. Mark Cox, the British No. 1 for most of the 1960s and early '70s, has been pushing the high schools to field tennis teams for several years now. He hasn't gotten anywhere.

The English Lawn Tennis Association is about to appoint a new manager and charge him with putting together a program organized along the lines of those formed by West Germany and France in recent years. But that will take a long time even if the money is there, even if the players can be found.

The players will not be found playing in the rich kids' club of Britain. It is that system that has produced this embarrassing situation. Most of the top players here either come from families with money or families that have used virtually all their money to make their child a tennis player.

It is not that different than the United States. But in the U.S., there is a larger talent pool to start with, there are scholastic programs and kids are brought up with that "nasty fight" in them Castle talked about. Castle has a little of that in him. He even got fined -- horrors -- for court misbehavior last week. But, like his countrymen, he has a very long way to go to become a serious factor in tennis.

The state of the game here was perhaps best summed up by a group of Englishmen having a beer after the day's play was washed out on Monday. "This is a great day for British tennis," one man said, raising a pint. "All our players have made it to the second day."

Today, three made it to the second round. These days, that's progress.