WIMBLEDON, England -- The place is called Roehampton. Sixteen grass courts scuffed with brown splotches. Players, if they dare, can change in a locker room by a swimming pool, and then sit on a grassy knoll, waiting for their matches to be called.
Fans wander around the courts. There are no ushers because ntickets are needed. A freebie in the landof eight strawberries for $3. A loudspeaker blares in the background, an announcer rTC calling out pairings and results.
This is the site of the Wimbledon qualifier, a sudden-deattournament where some careers arelaunched, and others are ended. Elise Burgin came to Roehampton last Monday scrambling for a spot in the main draw, playing a teen-ager from the Netherlands named Petra Kamstra.
"Twenty-nine-year-old qualifier against young child," Burgin said. The kid won, 7-5, 6-3, and Burgin was gone.
"I didn't cry," Burgin said. "I never cry after a match. Qualifying is no shame. There are more players who are good out there now. Everywhere you look, you see young and eager players."
Once, Burgin was among theyoung and eager, a top-30 competitor from Baltimore who scratched out a comfortable living on the tour. Now, she is older, a player who is fading in the rankings and preparing for a life that goes beyond game, set and match.
"Who really knows what is coming ahead?" Burgin said. "I don't look at my life like, well, I've had a tennis career and now it's time to fade into oblivion. One phase is ending. But really, it's just a beginning."
Burgin isn't close to announcing her retirement. It's something to ponder on a rainy day. Her singles ranking may be 284, but Burgin uses her left-handed spins and volleys to remain an outstanding doubles player -- she is seeded No. 9 with Patty Fendick in women's doubles and No. 14 with Jim Grabb in mixed doubles.
"I could make a living playing doubles," Burgin said. "Physically, I haven't been this healthy in years. I could keep doing what I'm doing."
She is one of the more popular players on the women's tour, a bubbly, irreverent personality who writes, directs and casts a players-only skit that accompanies the Eastbourne tuneup tournament. This year, she spoofed the locker room scene. A sign tacked on a wall said: "No Coaches, Dogs, Parents and
Nuns." Lots of inside jokes that brought laughs from the crowd. A Margaret Court look-alike wearing a habit. A Chris Evert stand-in complaining about all the attention her newborn baby was receiving.
The punch lines she writes belie the hard times Burgin has survived in the past few years. A knee injury in 1987 deprived her career of a second wind. The next summer, she was invited to represent the United States in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. But after Evert agreed to play, Burgin was dropped from the team.
At the time, the Olympic snub was a crushing blow. Then, in March 1989, Burgin's mother, Paulina, died in a car accident. Suddenly, tennis didn't mean as much to her.
"You deal with things like that," she said. "Terrible things happen in life. You go on. You go on living. But your perspective changes. Obviously, the tennis is important, but it's not the only thing. When you're playing, while you have a career, you're living a life. You're growing as a person. In a period of a few years, tennis became less important. I had more responsibilities and as a tennis player you need tunnel vision."
Unlike most players, who never went to college, Burgin has a degree -- in communications and journalism from Stanford University. She is considering her post-career options.The behind-the-scenes machinery of television intrigues her. Burgin's skills as an officer with the Women's Tennis Association could come in handy if she tries to latch on with a sports management firm.
"I think I'm the treasurer of the WTA for life," she said. "I've had a great experience learning how a business operates. It has given me a focus on the world beyond tennis. You understand how the business works; you're part of the apparatus of shaping the way the women's tour operates."
If her career ended tomorrow, Burgin said she would have no regrets. Oh, she'd like to win one Grand Slam doubles title and boost her singles ranking. But playing tennis isn't a bad life. The matches, when they're going well, are awfully fun.
"You look at someone like Chris Evert; she went out in style," Burgin said. "She retired at the U.S. Open. She did it in a place where she had made so much of her glory. And even though she lost that last match, she won. For me, I don't know when and I don't know how I'll retire. Who knows? Maybe I'll just end it by stripping at center court at Flushing Meadow."
A smile crossed her face. The woman couldn't resist a good punch line.