Tennis court out of time Wimbledon: Court No. 1 will be torn down next month, but it has built up 72 years of intimate memories.

July 01, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

WIMBLEDON, England -- Nowhere is tradition held more dear than here at the All England Club, but even Wimbledon is not immune to the pressures of expansion and big business.

Because of that, the most intimate court in pro tennis, the No. 1 Court, which has been home to Wimbledon, Wightman Cup and Davis Cup matches and provided tennis fans with some of the sport's most exciting, dramatic and notorious moments, will be jackhammered into extinction next month.

But no one can erase the memories that have been created over its 72 years.

Already, in the first week of this Wimbledon, Court 1 has held two-time champion Stefan Edberg's final Wimbledon match and No. 2 seed Boris Becker's unexpected default with a wrist injury.

"Losing Court 1 is a sign of the times," said Becker. "You have to create bigger stadiums that will supposedly be better, too. But I kind of like the atmosphere on Court No. 1, because it wasn't the usual big court."

Laurie Pignon, who covered Wimbledon for the first time 50 years ago and now writes for the Independent, said Andrew Lloyd Webber could have written a musical about Court 1, that Monet could have painted it in three shades of light and that Shelley certainly would have composed an ode about it, "for the great West Open Stand, which over the years grew taller and taller, was festooned with color and was a wondrous sight to behold."

Pignon recalls rows and rows of girls in summer school uniform dresses in pink, lilac, blue and green and men in Panama hats.

"I remember the 1968 Wightman Cup, the last successful year we had on Court 1," said Pignon, recalling a doubles match between Britain's Truman sisters, Christine and Nell, and Stephanie DeFina and Kathy Harter of the United States.

"There has never been a match like it, nor will there be one like it again," he said. "Winners were hit off the wood, outrageous mishits clipped the lines and rallies were so hectic that they might have been playing on hot coals."

John McEnroe also has had more than a few moments to remember on Court 1. The most famous is the incident that occurred while he was playing Tom Gullikson in 1981.

McEnroe served, and the ball was called out, even though, as McEnroe pointed out, "Chalk flew up!"

The umpire, in his inimitable British style, advised, "There was a bit of spread there." Meaning the chalk had spread from its line, and it was that chalk McEnroe had seen fly up.

But McEnroe was having none of it, roaring, "You cannot be serious!"

Later, in the same outburst, he bellowed, "You are the pits of the world!"

McEnroe won the match and Wimbledon that year. But his

outburst on Court 1 led the All England Club to withhold what had been automatic club membership to the champion. McEnroe wasn't invited to join until after he won again the next year.

When McEnroe is asked about Court 1, it is not the bad moments he recalls. He never lost a singles match on Court 1. And the last doubles match he played there was with Michael Stich in 1992. It was a match that was extended over two days before he and Stich finally won, 19-17, in the fifth set.

"That match is one of the reasons why I don't play even doubles anymore," said McEnroe, who will do analysis here for NBC this week. "Anytime someone asks me, I say, 'What's the point?' It seems impossible to repeat the emotion and the excitement I felt on that court that day."

McEnroe also said it is surprising that Wimbledon isn't keeping Court 1 in its redesign.

"But they must have their reasons," he said.

And, of course, they do. In place of Court 1, which will be torn down after England's Davis Cup match against Egypt next month, will be a complex to house locker rooms, an enclosure for members and new media facilities.

Originally, in 1924, No. 1 seated about 2,500. Since then, it has been expanded to nearly 7,300. But it remains the most intimate of arenas. The fans, seated primarily on one side, are so close they can hear every word. Media members are so close they feel as if they could be hit by a backswing.

"I think it's criminal that they're tearing this down," said longtime broadcaster and writer Bud Collins. "I would have thought they would have an architectural committee that would have stopped them. To me, it's like tearing down Fenway in Boston."

Fenway is still standing, for now. But the Montreal Forum is gone. Chicago Stadium is gone.

And Wimbledon needs more seating.

The new No. 1 will seat 10,000, and with the dismantling of the old No. 1, the north end of Centre Court can be expanded to add 1,000 seats.

"No. 1 Court clearly has a long and distinguished history and has seen many great matches and events along the way," said Christopher Gorringe, Wimbledon's chief executive.

"That having been said, we have to move forward. . . . And I am confident that in time it will create its own special atmosphere and traditions, of which the old court would be proud."

But never again will it be the intimate place that allowed so many close, personal encounters.

(Today's feature matches, 6C)

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