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Wimbledon honors former champions

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WIMBLEDON, England — An applause meter wouldn't have survived Saturday at Wimbledon.

On a red carpet rolled across the world's most famous lawn, and with a brass band on hand to serenade, Wimbledon welcomed home 65 former champions and beloved near-champions.

Bjorn Borg returned to Wimbledon for the first time since losing the 1981 final to John McEnroe.

The graying Swede was greeted by thundering applause and a standing ovation. But so were a dozen other favorites as they bowed and curtsied in front of the Duchess of Gloucester at Centre Court.

Rod Laver received a torrent of applause, walking with the slight limp from a stroke two years ago. "Arguably the greatest of them all," said noted tennis commentator John Barrett, who presented the former stars to a tie-and-coat sellout.

Barrett introduced Billie Jean King as the person "who has done more to advance the cause of women's sports than anyone before or since." Like Borg and Laver, she drew a standing ovation.

So did Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Britain's Virginia Wade. Barrett reminded the crowd of Navratilova's 167 singles titles — 18 in Grand Slam events. "A level that will probably never be equaled," he said.

Chris Evert was introduced as the "Miss America" who won the hearts of the British public over "12 magical years."

And they kept coming: Steffi Graf, Jana Novotna, Lindsay Davenport, Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, John Newcombe, Jan Kodes, Stan Smith, Roy Emerson, Margaret Court, Maria Bueno . . .

Andre Agassi came out first, to allow him to get back to practice for a third-round match later in the day. Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario skipped the ceremony to prepare for matches but were honored later in the Royal Box.

"I got goosebumps and some tears because I've been part of playing among some of these great champions," said Mary Joe Fernandez, twice a Wimbledon singles quarterfinalist and once a semifinalist, who sat in the crowd applauding.

"It's wonderful to see them all together at the same time.

"I guess Borg was the most emotional because he was my idol growing up and he hasn't been here in such a long time. To see him again was special. As a young tennis player growing up, I remember those days when he used to drop to his knees.

"And Billie Jean King is special because she's done so much for women's tennis."

Warm welcomes also came for some of the near-champions like Ken Rosewall (a four-time runner-up) and Goran Ivanisevic (a three-time finalist).

Then there was 93-year-old Henry "Bunny" Austin, who rolled across Centre Court in a wheelchair. Austin lost in the 1932 and '38 finals and is the last British man to get that far in Wimbledon singles.

Challenging Austin for the oldest guest was Sidney Wood, an 88-year-old American who first played on Centre Court as a 15-year-old in 1927, and won the singles title in 1931.