Staid Wimbledon serves up bargain, and the commoners set up a racket

July 01, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

WIMBLEDON, England -- And on the seventh day, the wave came to Wimbledon.

The tennis commoners who politely stormed the wrought-iron gates of the All England Club yesterday transformed Centre Court into the People's Court. They dragged in duffel bags and sleeping bags, brown-bag lunches and six-packs of sodas. They occupied the seats of the rich and the famous, the titled and the privileged.

It was first-come, first-served at Wimbledon, where tennis was being played for the first time on the two-week tournament's middle Sunday, which had always been a day of rest.

"I woke my husband up at 4 in the morning and said, 'Let's go for it,' " said Esther Scott of Fairwarp in Sussex. "He thought I meant something else and rolled over and went back to sleep. Twenty minutes later, I woke him up again, made a flask of coffee and packed the kids into the car. We just had to be here."

Thousands of others also "had to be" at Wimbledon, the world's most prestigious tennis tournament.

With matches stacked up by five days of rain, organizers went against 114 years of tradition and ordered play on the middle Sunday.

RF The Centre Court door -- usually closed to all but 375 All England

Club members, 2,100 bondholders, well-connected friends and wealthy tourists -- was thrown open to the masses.

Fearing that 100,000 would line up for tickets along Somerset and Church roads, officials warned spectators to stay away.

Lines began forming at midnight. By dawn's early light, they snaked two miles in either direction, filling the streets of Wimbledon and a near

by golf course and parking lot. When the gates opened at 9:30 a.m., the fans shuffled forward as if they were waiting for tables at the famous Claridge's hotel.

So polite. So British.

"We got here at 3 in the morning and tried to sleep," said Patrick Kelly, a plumber from London. "The crowd was up. Playing cards. Reading books. There was great camaraderie."

Some came from farther away than the British Isles. Edwin Pope of Knight-Ridder News Service reported on the arrival at 5 a.m. of Uli Lorenz.

Mr. Lorenz said he heard about the special deal Saturday night in Stuttgart, Germany. He drove to Belgium, where his car broke down. He rented another, caught a ferry to England and drove straight to Wimbledon.

"It's wonderful," said Mr. Lorenz, who sat at Centre Court with his son. "How many chances do you get?"

All 24,894 spectators who showed up got onto the grounds for less than half the standard price. The 11,000 Centre Court seats and 7,000 No. 1 Court seats went for $16.50, the rest for $8.25. Leaden skies and threats of rain kept the crowd count down.

Centre Court, where spectacular shots are usually greeted with tepid applause, was like Memorial Stadium. At 11:50 a.m., the first wave was sighted. Ten minutes later, Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina and Andrea Strnadova of Czechoslovakia walked onto the court, and the crowd stood and roared as if a rock group had taken the stage. During warm-ups, the fans counted each shot in unison.

"It should be every day like this," Ms. Sabatini said.

Nine-time women's champion Martina Navratilova, who was not scheduled to play at Centre Court yesterday, watched the scene unfold and said she was "jealous. It was awesome. I told Gaby, 'You are one lucky woman to get to play out there.' "

Pam Shriver of Lutherville, Md., who lost her third-round singles match, rushed over from a locker room to watch the Centre Court crowd and exchanged a high five with tournament referee Alan Mills.

"It was like a soccer match out there, but not in a vicious way," she said. "It was one of the neatest things I've ever witnessed. Usually, you have the upper crust on Centre Court. But not this day. It was one of those snapshots in tennis, a day you'll never forget."

Even the chief executive of the All England Club was amused. He compared the day to a night at the concert hall.

"It's more like the last night at the Proms [a popular concert series], a tremendous atmosphere," Christopher Gorringe said.

The crowd cheered for the ball boys and ball girls, and even applauded wildly when the groundskeepers pulled out a tarpaulin to cover the court during a brief rain delay.

But the loudest applause and the longest waves were reserved for Jimmy Connors. Before he stepped onto the court, the crowd chanted, "Jimmy, Jimmy" and did the wave. Even spectators sitting in the Royal Box -- where there was no royalty -- joined in.

When the 38-year-old two-time champion finally arrived for his match against Derrick Rostagno, noise erupted from the seats, and hundreds of camera flashes flashed.

"For those people to come in here was good for us and unbelievable for them," said Mr. Connors, who lost in three sets. "It wasn't the very traditionalist crowd who watch tennis and you make a shot and they give you a 'jolly good show.' "

This was a New York-style crowd, street-smart and loud, tough and passionate. Children were everywhere, and fans were chanting. It was tennis as theater.

"That place was going crazy," Mr. Connors said. "Have you ever seen the wave at Wimbledon?"

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