An ill wind blasted through Wimbledon's first Tuesday like a buffoon at teatime, rattling nerves, fingering crumpets, flipping the table with a glorious smash. There went No. 1-ranked Steffi Graf, a victim of what British tennis legend Fred Perry called "wet, greasy and slippery" gusts, as well as the cool intensity of unseeded Lori McNeil of the U.S. Graf, winner of the last three Wimbledons and five of the last six, was blown out of the draw faster than any other defending women's champ in 101 years, and after she cracked nobody was safe. The next day broke sunny, but the upset gales only picked up speed. Michael Stich, the men's No. 2 seed and the 1991 champion, fell in straight sets to a qualifier named Bryan Shelton and was booed for exiting the first-round loss without shaking the chair umpire's hand. "I can crawl off the court next time," sneered Stich.
The Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, long a refuge for the high and mighty, took special delight this year in making the elite suffer. In last Thursday's second-round play, two-time king Stefan Edberg went down, as did 1993 finalist Jim Courier—at the hands of Guy Forget, whose ranking had dropped to 1,130 while he recovered from knee surgery—and by Sunday eight men's seeds and seven seeded women were gone in one of the most chaotic opening weeks in Wimbledon history. "I don't think anyone's ever seen a first week like this one," said Perry, who has been watching the tournament since he last won it, in 1936.
Those given to theorizing cited the extreme weather, the equalizing effect of high-tech rackets, a lack of hunger in the top players and, perhaps most plausibly, the unprecedented amount of depth in the game, particularly on the men's side. "Everybody thinks he can beat the opponent every time he goes onto the court, because every player plays well now," said 113th-ranked Kenneth Carlsen of Denmark after he had upset the third-ranked Edberg in five sets.
Whatever the reason, Wimbledon afflicted old powers and nouveaus alike. The next day, in abruptly oppressive heat, Carlsen retired from his match against Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman because of a stomach virus. He knew it was time, he said, "when I threw up on court." Britain's Chris Wilkinson inspired the locals with a minirun but lost to Wayne Ferreira of South Africa in the third round after tearing off a toenail while coming out of his bathroom the night before. "It was sort of hanging off," Wilkinson said. "So I was having problems with that."
Quite. Yet the most astonishing stiff upper lip belonged to McNeil, who held off far more than two rain delays to beat Graf and spark the best showing by African-Americans at a Grand Slam event since Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, in 1975. Her childhood friend Zina Garrison Jackson defeated second-seeded Arantxa Sánchez Vicario on Monday to move into the quarterfinals with McNeil, and Shelton, a Huntsville, Ala., native who was ranked No. 120, made it to the round of 16 before losing. Shelton said his defeat of Stich was inspired by the play of McNeil, his former mixed doubles partner.
No wonder. McNeil dictated the play and the tempo throughout her match with Graf, serving well and dropping volleys that made Graf look helpless. McNeil's 7-5, 7-6 victory included a rally from two games down in the second set, and at match's end she walked toward the net smiling broadly as a huge ovation from the Centre Court crowd rained down. It was, McNeil said, the best moment she has ever known. "It seemed very short, but at the same time—if this makes any sense—it seemed very long and very loud," she said. "It was a great feeling, a great moment for me."
In one sense the outcome was no shocker: The 20th-ranked McNeil had defeated Graf the last time they met, at the 1992 Virginia Slims Championships, and her game is perfectly suited to the speedy grounds at Wimbledon. At 30, however, McNeil is far beyond the usual age for a tennis breakthrough. She blossomed a bit in the mid-1980s—making the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1986 and at the Australian Open in '87 and beating Chris Evert to reach the '87 U.S. Open semifinals—but lacked the concentration to stick in the Top 10. "She had never been focused," says McNeil's mother, Dorothy. "She just enjoyed the travel."
At times Dorothy and her husband, Charlie, would watch Lori play and see that there was little use in cheering. "He'd say, 'Her mind is in Hawaii, and the job is right here,' " Dorothy says. But on Jan. 7 of this year, everything changed. Charlie, an All-Pro defensive back for the San Diego Chargers in the early '60s, took Dorothy to work that day in Houston, wrote a note and then killed himself with a gun. He was 57.
Charlie had been a superb strong safety, more openly emotional and competitive than his daughter. From 1960 to '63 he was part of a secondary that accounted for interceptions in 46 consecutive games, still an NFL record. But two knee surgeries forced him to retire, and after that he bounced from a job in real estate to another in offshore oil to driving a cab. According to Dorothy, Charlie hadn't worked for a couple of years, and he had lapsed into depression. He sought professional help, but it didn't take. "Six months before his death he said, 'They cannot help me; I'm going to have to help myself,' " Dorothy says. "Something happened in this life, and he just started to withdraw."
Lori was in Sydney on Jan. 7 for a tune-up tournament before the Australian Open. It was morning, and she had just had breakfast with her former coach. John Wilkerson. Returning to his room, Wilkerson ran into Garrison, who, like McNeil, was a product of Wilkerson's tennis program for kids at Houston's MacGregor Park. Garrison had just gotten word about the suicide, and together they went to tell McNeil. "When we went to the courts, she was waving and laughing," recalls Wilkerson. "She didn't know."