All England's storied ground Wimbledon: Genteel Wimbledon doesn't seem fazed by the thousands of fans drawn to the annual tennis rite. It wasn't always that way. Years ago it was a good place to get shot in a duel.


WIMBLEDON, England -- For a woman whose neighborhood is about to be invaded by tens of thousands of overnight campers, whose front yard is going to resemble a shopping mall, and whose sidewalk will soon be jammed by a few unsavory characters reselling sports tickets at used-car prices, Bilquis Salam is remarkably calm.

"We're just getting ready for a carnival," she says. "It's once a year, and it lasts only two weeks.

"Any longer, and I couldn't stand it."

Salam and her neighbors are preparing for the Wimbledon tennis championships that begin Monday at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. For all but those two weeks, Wimbledon is a relatively quiet suburb of 50,000 inhabitants on London's southwest fringe. For the 14 days of the tournament, it becomes a tennis paradise with racket-wielding stars and more than 380,000 spectators.

Most of the fans won't set foot in Wimbledon's medieval village, set atop a hill, or in the commercial center, which is below. They won't realize that Wimbledon's local government was swallowed up in the 1960s by the Borough of Merton.

Instead, the fans will simply pour out of a subway station in nearby Southfields, walk a mile up the road, and -- unless they have tickets -- join a line that snakes from the club's box offices, over a pedestrian bridge and into a field. Some will camp out overnight.

Nearly all will eventually pass by Salam's 1930s brick home, which lies a good long forehand from Wimbledon's outer courts.

"We've never had any problems and we've been living here for 30 years," says Salam, who rents her yard to vendors selling T-shirts, hot drinks and photos.

"There was one year, though, when a cleaner put two rugs over a fence and the rugs disappeared. But they showed up six months later. Someone had used them during a rainstorm and then rolled them up and put them behind a fence."

In Wimbledon, even the petty thieves are polite.

No discouraging words

It's difficult to find anyone around here with a discouraging word to say about the tennis tournament.

There is a lot of money to be made by renting homes to tennis stars like Boris Becker and Monica Seles. Other residents cash in by allowing vendors to take over their driveways, or by working at shops where fans cough up $100 to dress in an Andre Agassi outfit and $225 to swing a Pete Sampras racket.

Mike Smutry, who lives in a $300,000 rowhouse across the street from the tennis club, and whose life has been disrupted for two years by the construction of an 11,000-seat stadium, has to be virtually goaded into finding anything wrong with the tournament.

"Ignoring the building site, it's a nice quiet area," he says, looking across the street at two gigantic cranes, 30 construction trailers and a parking lot's worth of trucks. "The worst part was when they drilled the foundations. Went on for months. But this will soon be over. We have just another year of this."

From its debut in 1877, when a cricket player named Spencer Gore won the men's tennis title and then labeled the sport monotonous, Wimbledon has grown into a big business. The winners earn more in two weeks than most people command in a lifetime, while the fans pay high prices for tickets, programs, even the vaunted strawberries.

There is a genuine allure about the tournament and the town. Tennis history clings to the place like the ivy creeping up the walls of Centre Court. Wimbledon is where Gussie Moran showed lace, and where Martina Navratilova displayed fire. All the greats won here, from Agassi to Bill Tilden, Chris Evert to Billie Jean King.

The club has been moved once. It was shut for two world wars and bombed by the Germans. It was changed and rearranged as the game went professional in 1968 and took off in the 1970s.

But before there was a royal box at Wimbledon's Centre Court, there was a manor house. It drew Queen Elizabeth I, James I, Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria.

Wimbledon belonged to the archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century, was seized by Henry VIII in the 16th century and was then sold and resold. Among those who owned the land were ancestors of Winston Churchill and Diana, the Princess of Wales.

Diana's brother, the ninth Earl Spencer, has offered the now-ceremonial title of Manorial Lordship of Wimbledon for sale. The auction takes place next week, and the successful bid is likely to be more than $100,000 -- for a title that can be placed on a letterhead or in a passport.

Some have suggested that Boris Becker might like the title. In all likelihood, though, the next lord of the Wimbledon manor will be some anonymous wealthy businessman.

The remnants of Wimbledon's past can be seen in the village, the steeple of a 19th-century Anglican church cutting into the sky. A pub, the Dog and Fox, sits on a site occupied by an inn for centuries.

Site for duels

Before tennis, Wimbledon's most popular sport was shooting, a game that got a bit out of hand in the late 19th century when a gravedigger in a nearby town was hit by a ricocheting bullet and fell dead into a freshly dug grave. Wimbledon was famed as a site for duels, so much so that the millers at the town windmill acted as constables to stop the killings.

The windmill still stands as a museum in the midst of the glorious 1,100-acre Wimbledon Common. The park is so vast that it contains a golf course where the holes are named, not numbered, and the players wear red to warn hikers that an errant shot might come their way.

To Wimbledon's ruling elite, the ultimate game has always been the amassing of wealth, prestige and power.

Among the town's leading figures have been statesmen Charles James Fox and William Wilberforce, who helped end the European-led slave trade.

Now, the area is populated by television actors, writers, artists and executives. To most Britons, though, the most famous inhabitants are the children's fictional characters known as the Wombles, who lurk in the common and come out at night to pick up trash.

More recently, Wimbledon has been a setting for modern light fiction, from the crime novels of Nigel Williams to trashy books with plots revolving around tennis.

A new local best seller, "A Desirable Residence," mirrors Wimbledon's upper-middle-class angst and is billed as a "razor sharp novel of sex, avarice and estate agents."

For two weeks, though, sports is what will captivate the town. Some shops will temporarily close because regular customers won't be able to fight the crowds. Others expect to do big business selling everything from strawberries to trash bags to wear in the rain.

Among those who will watch the crowds pass by are Anne and Reg Smart, who have run the A. Tidy hardware store for 38 years. Shoppers there can sort through cat litter, weed killer and power tools. There isn't a Wimbledon T-shirt in sight.

"Wimbledon is a different ballgame these days," Anne Smart says. "Going back years, oh my, the people were beautifully dressed. And things were so much gentler, especially on the court.

"Now, it's all so serious."

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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