Time warp at Centre Court

Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2001

LONDON -- It's enough to make purists choke on their strawberries and cream.

The seeding system has been overhauled amid threats of a players' boycott. Showcase matches will begin an hour earlier than usual. Women are demanding to be paid as much as the men.

Even the Boston Ivy has been removed from Centre Court.

For Wimbledon traditionalists, this is shaping up as a tumultuous year.

The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, that bastion of royalty, ritual and convention, is being dragged into the 21st century -- kicking and screaming -- by modern-day pressures.

Few, if any, sports events are steeped in as much tradition as Wimbledon, with its folklore image of pristine lawns, all-white clothing, strawberries and cream, and the Royal Box.

With this summer's 115th edition of The Championships opening Monday, the rumbling of change is here.

For the first time in history, Wimbledon will have 32 seeded players in men's and women's play, instead of the usual 16.

The change was made in an effort to avert a walkout by the world's leading clay-court players, who claim they are discriminated against by Wimbledon in favor of big-hitting grass-court specialists.

Wimbledon is the only major tournament played on grass -- a fast, slick, low-bouncing surface that favors serve-and-volley players. The French Open is played on slow, red clay, while the U.S. and Australian Opens are played on hard courts.

Wimbledon has been the only tournament using its own discretion in seeding players rather than strictly following the order of the world rankings.

The clay-courters want Wimbledon to go by the ATP's entry system list, which ranks players based on results over the previous 52 weeks.

In a compromise, Wimbledon doubled the number of seeded players and agreed to take the top 32 in the rankings. But Wimbledon retained the right to shuffle the order of the men's seedings based on a computerized formula taking into account a player's grass-court record.

So, when the seedings were announced Monday, seven-time champion Pete Sampras was made No. 1, even though he is only No. 5 in the rankings.

''This is certainly progress,'' said Alan Mills, in his 19th year as Wimbledon referee. ''I hope the players appreciate that we are going a long way to address their concerns.''

But the world's two top clay-courters still won't be playing at Wimbledon.

Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, the three-time French Open champion, and Spain's Alex Corretja, the losing finalist in Paris, have pulled out, claiming injuries.

Another flashpoint is the issue of equal prize money.

For years, women have been demanding parity with the men. While the gap is closing, Wimbledon still refuses to join the U.S. and Australian Opens in paying the women as much as the men.

This year, total prize money is going up 5.5 percent to $12.15 million. The men's champion will receive $715,000 and the women's winner will get $661,375.

Total prize money for the men will be $6 million, while the women's total will be $5.1 million. The overall women's increase is 6.5 percent, compared with a 4.7 percent increase for the men.

''This is nothing to do with women's rights,'' All England Club chairman Tim Phillips said. ''It is to do with the marketplace.''

The top women players tend to win more than the men because they also compete in doubles, he said.

Women's tennis has surged in popularity around the world, thanks to the box-office appeal of young stars such as Venus and Serena Williams, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova.

''We continue to be concerned about the slow pace of progress toward equal prize money,'' said Bart McGuire, chief executive of the WTA Tour. ''We believe that the competition and entertainment levels of women's tennis amply justify equal prize money at all of the Grand Slams.''

Meantime, other slices of Wimbledon tradition will be missing this summer.

For the first time in 70 years, there will be no Boston Ivy on the Centre Court walls. The ivy has been pulled down to allow for structural repairs and will be replanted for 2002.

In a break with 80 years of scheduling, play on Centre Court and Court One will begin at 1 p.m., rather than 2 p.m. The extra hour should help counter the dreaded rain delays that inevitably disrupt the tournament.

But the pace of change can be slow.

When the new computerized seedings list was formulated Monday, it was handed to a Wimbledon employee to tap out on a typewriter.

And some things never change.

Nothing will deter the British tabloids from their pursuit of saucy Wimbledon coverage. Kournikova, the most photographed woman in tennis, got bigger coverage in Tuesday's papers for pulling out with an injury than the announcement of the seeded players.

The Daily Mail splashed a front-page photo of a smiling Kournikova wearing a backless evening dress peering over her shoulder.

The rival Mirror lamented Kournikova's absence but ran a revealing front-page picture of Austrian player Barbara Schett, describing her as ''Barbie ... the new No. 1 tennis pin-up.''

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