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Rain Backing Up Proceedings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mildew is beginning to be a problem.

Sheets of rain delayed play for six hours Wednesday at Wimbledon and nearly postponed every match for the first time in five years. The dampness permeated even the spirits of long-suffering fans who took refuge under any overhang and decamped in any available stairwell.

Only two of 52 scheduled matches took place, causing a scheduling headache for officials. Today’s starting time has been moved up two hours in an attempt to squeeze more play out of the day, which has been forecast to be as gloomy as Wednesday.

There is already talk of scheduling play on the middle Sunday, a break from tradition that has occurred only once, in 1991, after the wettest first week ever.

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The first tennis ball was struck just after 6 p.m. Wednesday, when Monica Seles took Centre Court for a first-round match against Rachel McQuillan. The second-seeded Seles won, 6-0, 6-2. In the other completed first-round match, third-seeded Jana Novotna defeated Wiltrud Probst of Germany, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0.

Even though the matches had been scheduled for Monday, Seles and Novotna counted themselves lucky to have finished Wednesday. Many of the women’s first-round matches originally scheduled for Monday will be played today, weather permitting.

Despite dire weather reports that are issued daily, the show usually goes on at Wimbledon, however briefly. There have been only three washed out days in 10 years. As they did Wednesday, All England Club officials made every effort to get matches under way.

There is ample incentive to get the matches on: As play on each court gets backlogged, the schedule gets more compressed and it becomes increasingly difficult to finish matches, even in the lingering daylight summer provides.

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There is also a financial incentive. If there is no play, holders of certain tickets for Centre Court and Court No. 1 receive a full refund and priority to buy a ticket for the same day the next year.

Further, if there is no play before 6 p.m., but some play after, those same ticket holders are eligible for a refund of half the ticket price. Seles and McQuillan arrived on court moments before 6 p.m. Later, Club officials said they would honor the half-price refund for those who make a written request.

McQuillan, ranked No. 105, had never played on Centre Court in front of members of the royal family and had to be prompted by the veteran Seles to curtsy at the service line as they walked out.

Seles made quick work of her opponent, taking advantage of McQuillan’s indecisiveness. Serving well and showing no hesitation herself, Seles won the first set in 18 minutes.

Seles admitted to setting a brisk pace in the second set. Although it didn’t rain during the first, it was never far from anyone’s thoughts. McQuillan moved swiftly in Seles’ wake, having little response or choice.

McQuillan, a 25-year-old Australian, said her first encounter with Seles gave her “an awful feeling that she could hit anything from anywhere.”

When McQuillan did win the fourth game of the second set--the first time she held serve--she raised her arms in triumph and smiled at the deluge of applause.

It didn’t seem possible, but the skies grew darker and the clouds dropped lower. Even with the match moving along at a land-speed record, it was only 45 minutes old when rain began to fall--with McQuillan serving at 2-5, 40-all. Even though she was two points from winning the match, Seles asked the umpire to stop the match.

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“It was slippery, I didn’t want to risk it,” Seles said.

Such a decision is not left to the players, but to tournament referee Alan Mills. Every time he decides to stop a match, it is grudgingly. Mills chose to stop the match just as it began pouring. Forty minutes later the players returned, warmed up, and played four points in 1 minute 43 seconds. Even as a relieved Seles walked off the court, she cast a wary eye to the sky, which everyone knows, has ultimate jurisdiction here.

Before her match, Novotna had guessed the day was a washout and at 5:30 decided to practice at an indoor court. Soon after, she was called to Court 1.

Probst played well in the first two sets but won only five points in the third.

Novotna too was preoccupied with the weather, rather than her opponent.

“At one point I was looking at the clock and looking at the sky and I was thinking, ‘Are we going to finish, are we going to finish?’ ” Novotna said. “I’m relieved.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wimbledon Featured Matches

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CENTRE COURT

* Martina Hingis (1), Switzerland, vs. Olga Barabanschikova, Belarus

* Natasha Zvereva, Belarus, vs. Elena Likhovtseva, Russia

* Tim Henman (14), Britain, vs. Jerome Golmard, France

* Pete Sampras (1), Tampa, Fla., vs. Hendrik Dreekmann, Germany

* Amy Frazier, Rochester Hills, Mich., vs. Brenda Schultz-McCarthy (14),

Netherlands

COURT 1

* Greg Rusedski, Britain, vs. Jonathan Stark, Seattle

* Anna Kournikova, Russia, vs. Barbara Rittner, Germany

* Thomas Johansson, Sweden, vs. Boris Becker (8), Germany

* Marc Rosset, Switzerland, vs. Petr Korda (16), Czech Republic


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