Mcenroe Tackles An Illusion Wimbledon Is Tradition Right Down To The Strawberries And Cream.

Posted: July 03, 1990

WIMBLEDON — Before John McEnroe departed this place last week - trounced in the first round and atypically introspective - he made a suggestion that proved the three-time Wimbledon champion has yet to grasp the mystique of English tennis. He suggested that the grass courts of Wimbledon be covered by a glass dome.

The fans, he said, were not getting the best of tennis from players stressed out from rain delays, careening on the slick greenery. He mentioned American basketball.

"They play under perfect conditions. At every game they know what time they're going on court. They know what the temperature will be. They know what surface they will play on. It is all exactly the same at every game of the year."

The National Basketball Association is, in fact, the perfect professional, all-American, contract-rigid, TV-adaptable, fail-safe, money-making machine.

A New Yorker born and bred who takes his profession seriously - tantrums aside, no one doubts John McEnroe is serious about his game - would be bound to admire this.

The All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, on the other hand, would like to avert its eyes.

Today this is causing a certain schizophrenia around the green lawns and striped marquees of Wimbledon.

Last year the All-England Club came out of the championship fortnight with a record profit of 9.2 million pounds (about $17 million).

This year the total is likely to go higher. Underneath the surface gentility which is the quintessential middle-class, privileged England, beats the heart of a marketing giant.

The matches are still the Ladies and Gentlemen's Championships. Gentlemen spectators are requested not to remove their shirts at any time.

The required attire for players is still predominantly white.

The umpires and linesmen are impeccably dressed and impeccably trained to withstand calumny.

The traditional strawberries and cream ($2.75 for 10 berries) are still served from stands painted the traditional dark green, surrounded by manicured lawns and uniformed lasses quickly disposing of litter.

The overall impression is one of gentility and manners.

This year, for security and safety reasons (there was a bomb scare each of the two days I attended) the admission rules have been tightened. No more standing at center court, the surprisingly small and very exclusive inner sanctum.

Still, underneath the politesse there is the rumble of profit. In the stalls lining the road outside and in the shop on the grounds you can buy Wimbledon sheets, shirts, scarves, ties, totes, towels, even perfume.

The corporate marquees where the privileged swig Pimm's and champagne each cost $12,000 a day. Advance tickets, even for simple admission to the grounds, are almost impossible for the uninitiated to get. Even for the elite, the cost averages $200 (for a $15 ticket) for each day's play in the first week. For the men's final the going rate is $1,500 a seat.

As a result, ticket touts line the streets outside, the black market is rife.

In the basement interview rooms following each match the millionaire athletes arrive for their 10-minute mass audiences with the press. (Any longer and you infringe on the paid-for rights of the TV networks which are covering the matches.)

Martina Navratilova, at 33 an ancient in this contest of youth, mentions that "looking for the almighty buck" may be spoiling the game.

You nod before you remember that Navratilova has made more money from tennis than anyone in the history of the game - more than $15 million in prize money and probably three times that in endorsements.

You smile at Jennifer Capriati, the child who misses her puppy, and then grow silent as her teen burble suddenly becomes tough.

"Now I'm where the big girls are," she says, and you suddenly recall that this tennis tot - too young to drive her own car - is now a multi-millionaire.

Last week, before leaving the interview room, Capriati was intercepted by a slim young woman in her mid-20s.

"Just wanted to wish you luck," the young woman said. Capriati nodded politely. Clearly the 14-year old did not recognize Andrea Jaeger, ranked number two in the world at age 16, who retired while still in her teens, a victim of burnout.

There is a grubby reality behind the gentility of Wimbledon. John McEnroe, for one, understands this.

What he fails to understand in proposing a glass cover for the hallowed grass is just how tenaciously the Englishmen in dark blazers and club ties still cling to the great illusion.

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