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WIMBLEDON TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIPS : NEWS FLASH : Sweaty Shirts Are a Pain in the Back, but Changing Is a Pain in the Neck

June 25, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England — As sometimes happens here in the Wimbledon tennis tournament, a woman's underwear became somewhat more interesting than her game Friday.

How else to account for the men hanging in the cherry trees along Somerset Road. "Quiet in the trees," the umpire on Court 6 kept demanding.

How else, for that matter, to account for the cluster of photographers, the clatter of their high-speed cameras perhaps more bothersome than even the young men.

It was Barbara Potter, this time. A three-time quarterfinalist here, she has no particular history concerning underpinnings. But this year, with her frequent change of shirts--on court--she has moved right into the Gussie Moran gallery of undergarments, her red-lettered panties now alongside the storied lingerie of Anne White and Betty Nutall.

There is something especially English about incidents like these. They never seem to occur anywhere else. Any other country, a woman's knickers--as they call panties here--are rather her own business. But there is this preoccupation with such things here.

And so Potter, 26, of Woodbury, Conn., who entered the tournament with no special promise, has become something of a tabloid star.

In the first round, photographers were delighted to discover Potter changing shirts on the switch. She simply sat in her chair, pulled the sweaty shirt off and a fresh one on, all in full view of the crowd.

In the second round, Potter, known on tour as the Intellectual--because she once had been accepted at Princeton--did her shirt trick again, but this time she had two ballgirls discreetly shielding her from view, although not the London Sun's, with Wimbledon-green towels. She further starred when she bent over and revealed a pair of panties lettered, "Smart . . . "

"Tennis star's undies are a volley good show at Wimbledon," The Sun decided. "That was the cheeky message the crowd spotted on the American's knickers as she . . . "

This is all background and explains the otherwise mysterious bulletin from the Wimbledon committee, which said: "There are no actual rules barring any player from changing his or her shirt whilst on court, but the practice is not encouraged."

This also explains the crowd at Court 6, for her third-round match with Jo-Ann Faull Friday, although modesty prevailed. Twice during the match, Potter nodded to a lineswoman and they disappeared together into a nearby ladies' room. Out came Potter, each time, wearing a fresh shirt.

With matches one apiece, a spectator idly inquired, "How many shirts do you think it will go?"

Later, Potter tried to dispel any notions that she was doing a Gypsy Rose Lee on court, merely trying to improve her chances by staying warm and dry.

Potter had to skip Wimbledon one year and was nearly absent another because of a chronic back injury. She said a doctor had advised her to change shirts whenever one got sweaty, since cool air blowing over the dampness tended to make her back stiffen.

"Two years of serious disappointment in cold London weather, and I had to attend to certain basic details to stay alive," she explained.

"Tennis is not an all-go sport. There are a lot of stops and starts and a dry shirt works wonders."

Why, you might wonder, did she need company each time. An official explained that a player cannot leave the court to secretly get instruction from a coach. This presumes low morals on the part of her coach, Mervyn Webster, who is not known to haunt ladies' restrooms.

The only other question is what happens if Potter advances to Centre Court, where there are no convenient changing rooms and where the folks in the backcourt stands have a nice angle on the ball girls and their towels?

"The royals are going to have a view," she promised.

There won't be much in today's tabs, just photos of her running to and from the court. But her performance did recall other famous examples of Wimbledon undress:

--Anne White and her all-underwear body-suit three years ago.

--Tim Wilkison busting a zipper on Centre Court last year, having to retire from the royals' view in a nearby tunnel.

--Linda Siegel falling out of the top of her costume in 1979.

--Gussie Moran's lace panties in 1949, and the Queen afraid to attend the final for fear of what else there was to discover.

--Margaret Court trying to finish a point and keep her dress from falling down at the same time in 1975.

Then, too, there was Sir John Smythe, now departed, the most famous Wimbledon-goer of his time. Something of a historian, in fact.

Somebody once asked him, of all the matches he had seen, going back to 1922, what was his most memorable moment at Wimbledon, land of tradition.

He sputtered: "Why, the day Betty Nutall's knickers fell down on Centre Court!"

Not only will there always be an England, but you'll never get it confused with anywhere else.

One more thing: Potter, won, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. She had to come from behind.

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