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MCENROE LIGHTS UP WIMBLEDON WITH COMEBACK

SHARE MCENROE LIGHTS UP WIMBLEDON WITH COMEBACK

Trust John Patrick McEnroe.

On a day when everything before and after him was predictable and dull, the world's most charismatic tennis player lit up the world's most famous tennis court with the comeback of his 14-year career."I don't ever remember coming back from two sets down before," the mercurial McEnroe said after his 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 8-6 first-round victory over Darren Cahill of Australia on Wimbledon's Centre Court on Tuesday.

"It's great to come back and win the match," he said. "Let's face it, I could easily be out of the tournament."

Technically, the match may not have been of the highest quality. Both players struggled with their first serves.

But it transcended tennis. It was pure theater.

"I never really got my game in total gear," McEnroe said after the 3 1/2-hour battle that started in sunshine and finished in evening gloom with a standing ovation for both players.

"I don't think it's the greatest match he's ever played either. But for excitement . . . "

For excitement, it beat the rest of the day's matches put together. They included straight-set victories for defending women's champion Steffi Graf and her three main rivals, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Gabriela Sabatini.

Graf, playing her first match since losing the French Open final to 17-year-old Arantxa Sanchez, gave up only eight points on serve as she swamped Julie Salmon of Britain 6-1, 6-2.

Navratilova opened her bid for a record ninth women's singles title with a 6-3, 6-2 victory over Jill Hetherington of Canada.

Evert, recovered from an ear infection, downed Peanut Harper 6-1, 6-1, while Sabatini conceded fewer games than any of the main contenders by trouncing Diane Balestrat 6-1, 6-0.

But of all the 42 completed singles matches on the second day of the championships, one stood out - the best rally of McEnroe's career.

"I expected a tough match. I didn't expect something like this," McEnroe said. "It's a positive just to be able to sit and dwell on this for a day but I'm proud of this, coming from two sets down to win."

For two sets, the left-handed American, who gave up a large part of the European clay-court season to concentrate on winning a fourth Wimbledon crown, appeared to have wasted all the preparation.

Deserted by his serve - he double-faulted 16 times - McEnroe allowed his 23-year-old opponent, at No. 26 the highest-ranked non-seeded player in the men's draw, to control the match.

Cahill, a dangerous serve-and-volleyer who beat Boris Becker on his way to last year's U.S. Open semifinals, appeared set to become the second unseeded Australian in successive years to end McEnroe's Wimbledon hopes.

Last year, Wally Masur upset the three-time champion in the second round in McEnroe's return to Wimbledon after a four-year absence.

But with the crowd behind him and his temper in check apart from sporadic swipes of his racket, McEnroe dug deep into his repertoire of unorthodox strokes and turned the match around.

As his first serve and returns of serve improved, McEnroe broke Cahill twice in the third set and again in the fourth, passing the Australian with flicked backhands and mixing up the pace on his volleys.

In the fifth set, McEnroe's touch and variation were at their best. But he blew five break points and, serving second, was under continued pressure.

He kept his cool, broke Cahill with a backhand cross-court pass to go up 7-6 and served out the match with a pair of swinging, swerving aces.