WIMBLEDON, England — John McEnroe narrowly escaped first-round elimination at Wimbledon today, staging the comeback of his life from a two-set deficit to beat Darren Cahill in a Centre Court match as changeable as the stormy weather.
McEnroe fell behind as his serve faltered, with 12 double faults through the third game of the third set. Suddenly, the fifth-seeded American started serving brilliantly and rode it to a 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 8-6 victory.
He capped the victory with two aces and raised both arms in triumph to a standing ovation at the end of the 3 1/2-hour match.
It was the first time that McEnroe, a three-time Wimbledon champion, ever had come back from two sets down to win. It was also by far the most dramatic victory on a day when favorites held form on Wimbledon's grass courts.
Steffi Graf quickly returned to winning ways as she opened defense of her women's singles title.
The 20-year-old West German, playing her first tournament match since losing the French Open title to Arantxa Sanchez 17 days ago, beat Julie Salmon of Britain 6-1, 6-2, on Centre Court.
Next door on Court 1, eight-time women's champion Martina Navratilova had only a slightly more-difficult time, beating Jill Hetherington of Canada 6-3, 6-2.
Gabriela Sabatini, the third seed from Argentina, beat Diane Balestrat 6-1, 6-0, while Chris Evert, the women's fourth seed, beat Peanut Harper 6-1, 6-1.
Other winners among seeded players included 12th-seeded Kevin Curren of the United States, who beat Britain's Andrew Castle 6-2, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3 in the completion of a match suspended by darkness Monday night.
Zina Garrison of the United States, fifth-seeded among the women, defeated Kimiko Date of Japan 6-1, 6-2.
But it was McEnroe's day, a day in which rain alternated with sunshine.
Poor Serving at First
He started off looking tight, and Cahill, the top-ranked unseeded men's player in the tournament, took advantage of it. He rushed the net, passed McEnroe and took advantage of the American's poor serving, clocking winners off second serves.
McEnroe's chance of getting into the second round, let alone winning a fourth title, looked close to death after he dropped the first two sets. Then he came back.
He swept to a 3-0 lead in the third set and didn't allow a break point throughout. He was serving better and returning serves better too.
The same happened in the fourth set. McEnroe broke for 4-2 with a lob, then showed the temper that earned him the nickname "McBrat" early in this decade. McEnroe netted an easy volley, and a fan yelled, "Go, Darren!" McEnroe glared at the stands and screamed, "Shut up, meathead!" Then he served out the set to tie the match.
Centre Court was getting dark as the fifth set drew to a close, and McEnroe ended the match triumphantly with two consecutive aces.