Familiar Faces Face Tough Fortnight : Wimbledon: Even Edberg's first match is a challenge. Tabloids having field day with Navratilova.

TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

The prim and proper order of Wimbledon, already somewhat shaken by all sorts of disorderly conduct recently, may actually return with the start of real tennis competition today.

Stefan Edberg, the defending champion and men's No. 1-seeded player, will star in the traditional Centre Court opener, taking on Switzerland's Marc Rosset, who won a tournament last year and made it to two other finals. And while Edberg is likely to get past Rosset, he will have a difficult time repeating.

To do so, he will have to wade through a field that also includes archrival Boris Becker, a three-time champion and second-seeded player here; perennial contender Ivan Lendl, seeded third; red-hot French Open champion Jim Courier, seeded fourth, and always dangerous Andre Agassi, seeded fifth. Also mentioned prominently as having a shot at the men's title are hard-servers Goran Ivanisevic, unseeded; Pete Sampras, seeded eighth, and Pat Cash, the 1987 champion who is unseeded here this year.

Martina Navratilova, the defending women's champion and third-seeded player here this year, will get the same Centre Court opening honors Tuesday, playing against Elna Reinach of South Africa, who once beat Zina Garrison but who has never gotten past the fourth round in a Grand Slam event. Navratilova's road to a 10th Wimbledon title, however, may be even rougher than Edberg's.

Even with the pullout of top-seeded Monica Seles, new No. 1-seeded Steffi Graf has given recent hints that she could return to her days of dominance on the women's tour in 1988 and '89, and second-seeded Gabriela Sabatini has improved her game immeasurably by learning to come to the net and play an attacking game. Also, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who is seeded fourth, lost a close final Saturday to Navratilova in a warm-up tournament at nearby Eastbourne and looked more at ease on the grass than ever before on that surface.

So, for those who run Wimbledon and whose tradition has brought such things as tennis whites only for players and a competitors' cafeteria called the Tea Room, letting the games begin today may bring a huge sigh of relief.

First, most of the recent days here have been rainy ones, and bad weather can make a mess of a grass-court tournament.

Then, there have been the Monica and Martina messes.

Seles, who was expected to add much drama to the fortnight of competition here with her quest to win her third consecutive Grand Slam tournament, leaving only the U.S. Open to complete a rare sweep of the sport's major events, pulled out Friday, citing some sort of injury and marking the first time a top-seeded player had withdrawn from Wimbledon.

And Navratilova, beloved around here for her longevity and nine titles, hit Wimbledon with a double dose of grief when she (a) objected angrily and publicly to not being seeded No. 1 as defending champion when Wimbledon decided to play it by the book and use the computer rankings for seedings and (b) became embroiled in a messy legal tangle when her former companion, Judy Nelson, claimed to have a documented agreement for a portion of Navratilova's income should they part ways, which they did.

Indeed, all this has been almost too much for the tabloid newspapers here, who don't really give a bad name to journalism, because they don't practice any.

And on top of all this, Andre Agassi has shown up.

Agassi, a star on the tour since winning six titles in 1988, played only once previously at Wimbledon, losing a first-rounder in straight sets to Henri Leconte. With Wimbledon, Agassi apparently came, saw, didn't conquer and decided he didn't like.

In 1988, '89 and '90, the absence of one of the game's superstars at the game's super event prompted all sorts of criticism, not to mention T-shirts that asked the burning question: "WHERE'S ANDRE?"

But now, when the placid powers at Wimbledon had gotten used to the idea of life without Andre, the 21-year-old from Las Vegas, the Madison Avenue guru in "Rock 'n' Roll Tennis" and "Image Is Everything," has come to play, apparently deciding that tennis white is one stuffed shirt he will put up with.

BUILT FOR SPEED Of the three primary outdoor surfaces used in tennis, grass courts are the fastest, placing an added premium on the power game. Wimbledon, the only one of four Grand Slam events played on grass, begins Monday and runs through July 7. Winning at Wimbledon * To win on grass, a player needs a serve-and-volley game because of the speed and low bounce of the ball. With the advent of graphite rackets, baseline players do not often thrive at Wimbledon; a strong first serve and net game is essential. Consider that power brokers Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg have been in the finals the past three years. * On clay, the slowest surface, the bounce is high and slow enough so that a player can outlast his opponent from the baseline. Michael Chang won the French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament played on clay, in 1989 because of his groundstrokes and admits to having an inadequate serve-and-volley game. * On hard courts, the primary surface in the United States, players often can win with baseline or serve-and-volley games. The bounce is not as low as grass, but substantially quicker than on clay. There are several types of hard-court surfaces, of different asphalt compositions that make some faster than others. Maintaining the surface * Grass courts require far more maintenance than the other surfaces. After two weeks of competition, when areas around the baseline in particular have worn down to the dirt, the courts are spiked and reseeded with four types of grass seed. Centre Court and Court 1, the two main show courts, will not be played on until the tournament the next year. Is the grass dying?* As late as 1977, three of the Grand Slam tournaments were held on grass. But in 1978, the U.S. Open moved from Forest Hills, N.Y., to the hard courts at Flushing Meadow. The Australian Open switched from grass to hard courts in 1987. But don't expect Wimbledon to make a similar move. Tradition is a powerful force at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Playing Surfaces Of the 59 Assn. of Tennis Professionals tournaments in 1991, only 5 will be played on grass courts. Here's how the courts add up: Hard courts: 29 Clay: 25 Grass: 5 Note: three of the grass-court tournaments essentially are tune-ups for Wimbledon. The only U.S. tournament on grass is at Newport, R.I., the week after Wimbledon.

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