At the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, where tradition hangs on at least as tenaciously as at Buckingham Palace or Westminster Abbey, there was a rather drastic change last week in the Official Lawn Tennis Championships. The balls, the players' clothes and the thick cream spooned over the strawberries were all still white, and on warm days the popsicle vendors were still shouting, "Wrap your lips around an ice-cold lolly!" But on the tea lawn adjacent to Centre Court the well-known "turf accountants" of the William Hill Organization had pitched a large tent and were accepting wagers on the tournament of 10 pence (about 23¢) and up—sometimes up into the thousands of pounds.
At the outset, Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors were each posted as 6-to-4 favorites to retain their singles titles. The next favorites among the men were Arthur Ashe (10 to 1) and Bjorn Borg (12 to 1); after Chris, the oddsmaker had Billie Jean King at 4 to 1. All that seemed straightforward enough, but Hill's had passed up the chance to set the odds on some even more intriguing possibilities. Like on what day the screaming schoolgirls would finally get through the police guard and rip the clothes off the teen-aged Swedish heartthrob, Borg. Or when, exactly, Ilie Nastase would have his first argument over a line call. Or in which round Britain's annual hope, Virginia Wade, would feel her muscles turn into marmalade and blow a big lead. Still, the betting at Hill's was brisk and the action on the courts and at the turnstiles was even brisker. At the end of Wimbledon's first week, attendance had soared to more than 200,000, a record.
Before the tournament there was some justified hope among the men that Connors could be beaten on English grass. In the previous three weeks he had lost to Bernie Mitton of South Africa at Chichester and to America's Roscoe Tanner at Nottingham. However, there was no sign that Connors was in the least disturbed. "Don't worry about a thing," he said, "at Wimbledon I'll be back on the line."
And he was. With his mother Gloria sitting in the stands and worrying her rosary beads, Connors swept almost effortlessly through to the quarterfinals without losing a set to Britain's John Lloyd and Mark Cox, to India's smooth Vijay Amritraj or to Australian Phil Dent, who gave him his toughest match at Wimbledon last year. Each day he would arrive at the club to practice for a few minutes with his pal Nastase, who calls him "Junior" and can imitate anyone's style. If Connors was about to play Dent, Nastase became a hard-serving facsimile of the Aussie. Despite a bad case of hay fever early in the week, Connors was never in trouble and was pushed only by Amritraj. "If I win it twice in a row," he said, "nobody can say that I'm a lucky player."
No unseeded man made the quarters, but there were a few upsets. Fifth-seeded Nastase fell in the second round to an obscure Texan, Sherwood Stewart of Baytown (formerly Goose Creek). Nastase broke his racket pounding it on the grass in frustration over a line call and left the court in tears.
Other dreams were shattered. Seventh-seeded Stan Smith, who has not been the same since he blew a big lead in the semifinals last year and lost, was embarrassed in round one by South African Bryon Bertram 6-1, 6-2, 6-1. And second-seeded Ken Rosewall, 40 years old with a backhand 20 years younger, who has won just about everything except Wimbledon, lost in the fourth round to husky fellow Aussie Tony Roche.
So the surviving men going into the second week were Connors, Roche, Mexico's Raul Ramirez, Argentina's Guillermo Vilas, Borg of Sweden, Dutchman Tom Okker and Americans Ashe and Tanner. None but Connors had ever won Wimbledon, although Roche (with John Newcombe) had won the doubles five times.
First prize for women's singles is ¬£7,000, which is ¬£3,000 less than the male chauvinists are shooting for, but last week the difference seemed justified because the women supplied much less entertainment than the men. The seeds moved forward routinely except for No. 8, Kerry Melville Reid, who was hurt and had to retire. The top seven played 25 matches and lost only five sets. Evert, who brought her coach-father Jimmy along to see his first Wimbledon, has not been beaten since April. Still, she has yet to beat King or Margaret Court on grass, and it was almost a cinch she would meet Billie Jean in a semifinal.
The "Mrs. R. Cawley" who showed up in Wimbledon's very formal "Programme" turned out to be simply the Aussie girl who used to be listed as "Miss E. Goolagong." She was married to an English metals broker the week before the tournament's start and was trying for a second Wimbledon title as a wedding present for herself. Most of the week's drama, however, came from Virginia Wade, starring in Our Gal Ginny, a show the BBC really ought to pick up. In this episode, against Janet Newberry of the U.S., the sixth-seeded British heroine was down 5-0 in the deciding set and fought back to win 8-6, providing what the Daily Telegraph correctly called "almost unbearable patriotic tension."
Apart from the enjoyable tennis, Wimbledon's first week was a marvelous feast for the senses. There was rain on Monday and chill on Saturday, but the four days in between were sunny and hot enough to cause a serious run on the lolly supply. The studs on Margaret Court's new dress came loose during a Centre Court match, and few would have blamed her if she had spurned the offer of pins and left herself air-conditioned. One afternoon, on a patch of grass at the entrance to the tea lawn, a girl lazed in a bikini, another departure—perhaps the most radical—from staid Wimbledon tradition.
And every day came the throng of tennis fans, the morning queues on Wimbledon Park Road sometimes threatening to stretch back to Hyde Park Corner. The teenyboppers had eyes only for the young, taciturn Borg. David Gray of The Guardian was watching the Swede play one day, and beside him stood a 14-year-old girl "who spent the whole match with a huge coloured postcard of Borg clutched to her bosom. Every time he hit a good shot, she kissed it."
The attendance hit a single-day record 37,290 on Friday, and it seemed that those who weren't breathing heavily for Borg were stopping by Hill's to wager a bob or two. A Hill's spokesman said that the daily handle—cash wagers alone, not including bets on credit—was ¬£3,500 to ¬£4,000. That also does not count the horse betting that went on in the tent. Punters noted with satisfaction that a filly named Virginia Wade won a race at the Pontefract Track in Yorkshire on Wimbledon's opening day.
The idea of gambling going on in the shadow of Centre Court did not sit well with many. The Association of Tennis Professionals forbade their members to bet and issued a statement that said in part: "... the ATP goes on record as deploring the establishment of gambling on tennis at tournaments and asks that Wimbledon and any other tournaments planning to do so promptly reconsider and join the players in helping to keep our game free from the tremendous problems caused by close association with gambling."
A Hill's spokesman said that a small group of bettors put ¬£5,000 on Sherwood Stewart to beat fellow Texan Mike Estep (Stewart and the bettors lost). At Hill's head office, where tennis bets have been accepted for years, someone bet ¬£4,000 on the so-called "Lovebird Double"—both Evert and Connors to repeat as champions. At 5¼ to 1, the payoff after taxes would be ¬£21,000 or something over $47,000.
By week's end, Borg had not been publicly attacked. Virginia Wade—the very human Virginia Wade—had faltered but not fallen. Stan Smith could still redeem himself in the doubles. Evert was still listed at 6 to 4, but Connors, leading at the far turn, was down to even money to stay in front all the way and win, with or without mama's rosary beads.
Odds were posted and bets taken in a large tent set up on the tea lawn. Connors, the title favorite at 6 to 4, romped through early rivals, and superb weather helped to set attendance records.
Wade fought back gamely to avoid an upset.