WIMBLEDON, England -- The first wave of fans huddled under blankets in the cold twilight the night before. By dawn, the queue snaking down Church Road already stretched one mile. As Jimmy Connors and Pam Shriver learned the hard way, it was far easier to leave Wimbledon yesterday than it was to get in.
Not that the All England Club was toppled by an invasion of spectators eager to buy first-come, first-served tickets, as London police feared. The Championships opened the gates for the first time in history on the middle Sunday of the event, but the crowd turned out to be far more orderly than the topsy-turvy tournament itself.
Still, Shriver warned: "I think the safest place is in the locker room."
Certainly that was true for Shriver, the victim of No. 5 seed Mary Joe Fernandez's 6-3, 7-5 victory. It also applied to Connors, who suffered a 7-6 (7-2), 6-1, 6-4 loss to Derrick Rostagno in possibly his final match here. Leave it to Connors to outlast even the sanctity of tradition.
Because of the drenching rains early this week, the club announced Friday night that play would commence yesterday, which had been scheduled as a day off ever since the tournament began in 1877. About 11,000 Centre Court tickets and 7,000 Court 1 tickets quickly were printed for the bargain price of $17; 5,000 grounds passes were sold for $8, and all seats were unreserved.
That created the wild scene of fans reaching into their wallets, pushing through the turnstiles and dashing madly for the courtside seats in the stadium, shouting: "I made it! I made it!"
Evidently not schooled in the proper behavior, the crowd greeted the sight of Gabriela Sabatini stripping off her sweatsuit with catcalls and wolf whistles. When Sabatini and Andrea Strnadova warmed up, they counted the strokes in unison, "One, two, three . . . "
But, perhaps, what most horrified the reserved tournament officials was an activity that forever may have stained The Championships' century-old reputation for restraint. On Centre Court at the All England Club at about 11:40 a.m. yesterday, grand old Wimbledon was introduced to The Wave.
"It was great," said Martina Navratilova, who was in the locker room when the roar erupted. "I said, 'What's this commotion?' It was awesome. I told Gaby, 'You are one lucky woman to get to play out there.' "
Yet the club, afraid an overflow crowd would choke the narrow streets of the village, publicly issued warnings that all tickets likely would be sold within hours. When the ploy succeeded and only 16,000 showed up, word was spread over TV that more seats were available.
As a result, a second torrent of fans still was pouring through the gates at 3 p.m., five hours after the grounds were unsealed. Attendance climbed to 24,894 and Wimbledon officials appeared almost as satisfied as they were relieved.
"This is a tremendous atmosphere," gushed Chris Gorringe, chief executive of the club. But he cautioned: "The Championships is determined that this should not be seen as a precedent."
The spectators cheered Connors as he entered the stadium with a chant of "Jim-mee, Jim-mee," which seemed to be imported from a hockey game. Connors responded by pumping a racket in his hand.
But Rostagno -- the man who had upset Pete Sampras Saturday -- won five straight points to carry the tiebreaker. He won eight of the next nine games. Connors then left for his chair in the TV booth, although he pledged to remember the occasion.
"That crowd was New York, every day," he said. "They weren't your regular traditionalists, sitting there, saying, 'Oh, jolly good.' I loved it."