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BUD COLLINS

A sprinkling of change doesn't distract Federer

LONDON -- As we know, it never rains at Wimbledon. Unless there's some moisture in the neighborhood, in which case they call it "unsettled conditions."

There were a lot of unsettled goings-on at the Big W (the Big Wet?) yesterday as the world's oldest fiesta of the fuzzy ball cranked up again for another two weeks of pains and gains as well as rains on the grassy plains of the All England Club. Even so, 32,916 mildewed devotees showed up. It was also unsettling, between dampness interruptions, to enter the tennis cathedral called Centre Court and wonder, am I in the right place?

An itinerant Swiss chap who currently holds title to the 85-year-old playpen, Roger Federer, would have wondered, too, if he'd let his mind wander. But that seldom happens to invulnerable Roger the Lodger of the venerable arena -- not over the last four years anyway. This amphitheatre was -- yet was not -- the same place where he had won 28 straight matches. It was now topless, so to speak, looking quite improperly undressed.

"I definitely prefer the way it was," said Federer, who opened the chilly, sprinkly show after an hour or so delay, stretching his victory streak to 29 in a 93-minute performance of "Georgia on My Mind." Not the Ray Charles hit, but putting a hit on a native of the other Georgia, Teimuraz Gabashvili, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. "But I understand it's a work in progress," he said of the remodeling that will eventually give Centre a defense against unsettled conditions: a retractable roof.

Court 2, that compact torture chamber, is to be remodeled, too, next year. But it looked the same to ex-champ Martina Hingis. "I know it's the graveyard of champions, but I never lost there," she said after nearly earning herself a tombstone. She'd never made such a Wimbledon escape either, dodging two match-point bombs at the hands of 18-year-old English lefty Naomi Cavaday, 6-7 (1-7), 7-5, 6-0. So it wasn't cave-in day against Cavaday, a wild card No. 232, and the 26-year-old Hingis could continue celebrating the 10th anniversary of her title.

During World War II, a few German bombs fell on Centre, damaging the roof. (Did Hitler feel that zapping beloved Wimbledon would enfeeble English morale?) To those accustomed to the classic structure, much like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre with roofing over the audience, the present stripped-down version does seem eerily bombed out. "More wind gets in," said Federer. "It looks and plays different."

He got into the husky 22-year-old Gabashvili (now a Moscow resident ranked No. 86) by the sixth game, and breezed the rest of the way.

Gabashvili had no feelings about the court, having never seen it before, though he knew it was the most famous location in his profession. But he "enjoyed it there, playing the best player in the world, and the world watching. I thought I was all right after the second game." Gabashvili held serve to 1-1 through five deuces and three break points as Federer looked human, committing 5 of his 13 errors. But he wasn't all right for long. "I played good but mentally Federer was too much for me."

Appearing on court in smart white trousers and jacket, Federer may have been tempted to leave the pants on during the 59 degree matinee, in the style of the 1920s and '30s. "It was cold, but not that cold," he smiled. He peeled down to customary shorts for the workout.

He has said, "I'm not an enemy of the past. I admire the champions who came before me." But, of course, he is the enemy -- if good-natured -- of his predecessors' accomplishments. Currently he is in pursuit of Bjorn Borg, the erstwhile Angelic Assassin of Centre Court. By winning for a fifth successive time, Federer would equal the Swede's 1976--80 parade as well as his 11 major championships.

Borg has wished Federer well, saying he'll be here for the final -- if Roger is. Pete Sampras, who goes into the Hall of Fame at Newport, R.I., July 14, has admiringly conceded that the Swiss big cheese will punch holes in his record 14 majors and seven Big W titles.

There are other multiple Wimbledon winners to be considered: Willie Renshaw won six straight, 1881--86, and Laurie Doherty five in a row, 1902--06. No word has been heard from Willie or Laurie, but they may be operating in unsettled conditions.

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