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Frank Deford
July 07, 1980
The tennis was mixed with raindrops as fans at the famed tournament spent long hours huddled under umbrellas
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July 07, 1980

Of Volleys And Brollies

The tennis was mixed with raindrops as fans at the famed tournament spent long hours huddled under umbrellas

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Monday, June 23

The opening match on Centre Court is traditionally awarded to the men's defending champion—The Holder—but whatever scheduling follows depends on the whims of a wise though capricious referee. There was, then, a patch of irony that Bjorn Borg was succeeded upon the velvet greensward by Ilie Nastase. But for the demons which reside between Nastase's rabbit ears, he, not Borg, might well have become the nonpareil. He was, perhaps unbelievably, quicker than Borg and every bit the athlete. All too often, though, Nastase's worst would get the best of him, and at those times when it mattered most—Davis Cup or Wimbledon—the threads would unravel.

His last chance for true glory came in 1976. But in the Wimbledon final that year, the Borg-child, barely 20, whipped the favored Nastase in straight sets. Ever since, it has not been the contest for Nastase—only the stage. How delighted he was last August when he got to play John McEnroe at night in the U.S. Open! There is about Nastase now the sad aspect of an old opera star cadging drinks in some saloon by belting out Melancholy Baby—The Entertainer.

Borg, of course, is never swayed from the task at hand. Today he beat Ismail El Shafei in three sets, his 29th victory in a row here. The Egyptian is 32, pudgy and a part-timer, but once before, in 1974, he beat Borg at Wimbledon. The future champion was just 18 then, baffled by his new fame and the screeching schoolgirls, harried by an exhausting schedule. One sees Borg now, coming off court after that defeat, his ferret eyes spiritless, haunted. He used to give away such matches when he was tired and wanted to go home. These days his campaign is too well planned for him to suffer any such human failure.

The British find him terribly tedious—this first day a scalper opined that his trade would be hurt if the "boring" Borg made it to the finals—but they do give him his due. His autobiography is in the bookshops here, there was a prime-time TV hour devoted to his life and reports of his imminent marriage are as unrelenting as the rain. So the crowd was relieved to have Nastase for a dessert course, and he did not disappoint them, except perhaps in the sense that he routed one of their own, the journeyman John Feaver. Nastase imitated a skater on the slippery turf; he fell to his knees to escape the rays of the sun, which broke through just as it set; he remonstrated with the new electric serve-line indicator—and with all the laughing and gesticulating, he was never mean. But then, he was never threatened, either.

Tuesday, June 24

It rained again much of the afternoon, and there was virtually no play before 6:30. Yet the 28,103 fans, on hand since the 2 p.m. witching hour, milled about patiently under their brollies. Many stayed out in the showers, clinging to their wet seats (or standing spots) lest they lose them when merely dank, playable weather returned. As we know from the American clich�-ization of Wimbledon, these gentlefolk of Britain are mad for tennis.

Not really. It is just tennis at Wimbledon. Elsewhere in England, there are few public courts and almost no indoor facilities, and in the schools, boys are all but discouraged from taking up the game—battles, you must remember, are won on playing fields, not courts. All the best male players are inbred, coming from tennis families.

Two such old-line stalwarts squared off in the first round: Buster Mottram, the top-ranked Briton, and John Lloyd, who held that honor before he became more devoted to being a husband than a player. The sad part about this confrontation, this battle of Britain, is how little the natives cared. Not long ago it would have been held on Centre Court. Then, the headlines would have screamed in despair as England's best went out of the tournament: BLACK DAY FOR BRITAIN, that sort of stuff.

But today, Mottram and Lloyd were shunted to Court 2, and virtually all those in attendance were females, there for beauty not for country. The Gorgeous Lloyd is all the more an attraction since he married a real live champeen, and he and Chris have become a national valentine. The missus watched from the Players' Tea Room balcony. Below, most of the little girls wore LLOYD IS LLOVELY buttons. Poor dears: he lost to Mottram 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 without ever so much as breaking serve or expression.

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