WIMBLEDON, England -- In the end, they all return to the Wimbledon outback, the place where the champs and near champs fall, and the young and the restless rise.
Pat Cash was there yesterday, far from Center Court, in the land where the autograph seekers and television sound trucks roam.
Cash ruled the joint in 1987, when he won and leaped in the stands to hug his father. But there he was limping on Court 3, a Wimbledon memory in short shorts and a checkered headband. Tape covering his knees and wrists, grunting and groaning, he finally twisted his left ankle in a first-round match, calling it quits against somebody named Dick Norman after losing the first-set tiebreaker.
Nobody bothered to hug a loser.
Stefan Edberg was out there, too, one of six ex-champs on the schedule who were stacked up like planes over Heathrow Airport. Suddenly, Edberg, at 29, is one of the old guys. The monstrous kick serve that gave him two Wimbledon titles is gone.
He watched the crowds limbo by him alongside Court 2 but he beat up a qualifier named Emilio Alvarez in the first round, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. Maybe the magic is back. Or maybe it isn't. Still, he fights for one more journey to Center Court.
"It's always special to come back to a place where you have won it," Edberg said. "Wimbledon is the big thing to win. It has to be special. It feels you are part of history, part of tradition, having played here and been a champion."
He doesn't understand the players who won't come to Wimbledon. He can't believe that someone like Thomas Muster can win the French Open and then blow off the world's premier tennis tournament.
"I think you should show your face here and play," he said.
Even those who once came close to titles can't stay away, even when they no longer can undo past defeats.
Henri Leconte, bloated and slow, the magic gone from his shots, playing like a guy who was late for lunch, lost to Javier Frana, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. He left Court 14 with a wave, a smile, and a last look.
"I think it will be my last match here," he said. "One day, you have to realize it's going to get more and more difficult. Even the first round is more difficult. So for me, at the age of 32, you just have to realize that some day you're not able to produce the best. You try to produce your best, but you can't anymore.
"The trouble is, I preferred not playing," he said. "Sometimes, you have to be reasonable."
Still, there is a pull about the game. It's not all about money, either.
There was a run Leconte made in 1986 that will stay with him forever, when he used all his flair and nerve to reach the semifinals. But then he walked right into an 18-year-old kid named Boris Becker and never got to the final.
"It's always difficult when you love tennis and when you love the place," Leconte said. "You get to the semifinal and you feel like it's home. For me, this is not a job. It's pleasure."
Even in defeat, a player can gain a certain satisfaction.
Out on Court 13, as far from Center Court as a player can go and still be at Wimbledon, Pam Shriver was battling gainst Lindsay Lee, a 17-year-old qualifier who just graduated from high school in Atlanta.
Shriver was up a set and going strong, "feeling like the veteran who was going to beat the kid," she said. But then, she popped a left quad muscle, and tried to get by on guile, telling herself she wouldn't quit like Cash. She didn't. But as the shade crept across the court near sundown, Lee won, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4.
"It can get ugly out there," Shriver said. "Every once in a while you have to put your pride on the back shelf. You're out there in the greatest tournament in the world. Once you don't come here, you don't get back in."
Shriver turns 33 on the Fourth of July. She remembers playing on her birthday in 1981, hearing the crowd serenade her, before losing to Martina Navratilova in the semifinals.
Once, she was the No. 3 player in the world. Now, she's No. 83.
The young players hardly know her.
"I was sitting in a whirlpool with two French players, chatting," she said. "They asked me about my career. I said I used to be No. 3 and I used to be really good. They almost drowned laughing."
Still, Shriver can't stay away. Let the kids laugh. Wimbledon is about nostalgia and chasing dreams.
One more veteran can't wait until next year on the outback.