WIMBLEDON, England -- This was the kind of match they might have played if their careers had run similar paths. If John McEnroe had not lost interest when Pat Cash was coming up, if McEnroe had come back before Cash had lost interest.
This was the kind of match that used to be a regular occurrence at Wimbledon. Before the rackets got high-tech and everybody served bullets, before the points got shorter and the odds for one dramatic shot after another got longer.
"I've got to go back to when I was in the finals all those years," McEnroe said last night at the All England Club. "I played some reasonable matches, some exciting matches, but whether the tennis was of that high a quality, I don't know."
The earliest meeting of former champions in the tournament's 106-year history might have been inconsequential in this year's outcome, but it will be remembered by those who witnessed five sets and more than four hours of mostly brilliant tennis between McEnroe and Cash.
That McEnroe came back after losing the first and third sets in tie-breakers -- winning, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-7 (1-7), 6-3, 6-2 -- was testimony to his resilience and the ability he still has to create shots in a fraction of seconds. That Cash couldn't hold on was evidence to his lack of tough matches the past few years.
"He's the greatest player ever to walk onto a tennis court," Cash said of McEnroe, 33, a three-time Wimbledon champion who last won here in 1984. "Just because he's a good friend doesn't mean I'm not ticked off when I lose."
Cash, who won in 1987 at 22, was half-joking. The two players are good friends, but friendship was put aside the moment they realized they might be facing each other. Cash was still upset, and rightfully so, for letting what seemed to be a near-certain victory slip through his grasp.
After winning the third-set tiebreaker, Cash had a number of chances to take control of the match in the fourth. But McEnroe fought off two break points in his first service game and one in his second. Cash then double-faulted in the sixth game at 30-40, and McEnroe quickly closed out the set.
Leading 1-0 in the fifth set, Cash then watched as McEnroe fought off four more break points in his first service game. On one of them, at 15-40, Cash hit what he called "my best backhand of the match", only to see McEnroe gently put a forehand volley over the net.
"I felt I had him, but I couldn't put him away," said Cash, 27, whose ranking of 191 belies his skills as one of the world's best grass-court players. "It's a bit frustrating. I think when it came down to the crunch, he came up with a couple of great shots."
Said McEnroe: "He did have me on the ropes. He played very well. I was able to climb off the ropes and get a second wind."
McEnroe wasn't the only former champion to get a second wind and a second life in this year's tournament. Three-time champion Boris Becker, who has been bothered by a thigh bruise that forced him to pull out of last month's French Open, did some climbing of his own in a second-round match against Czechoslovakian teen-ager Martin Damm.
Becker, seeded fourth, lost the opening set, won the next two and seemed to be in good shape early in the third. But Damm, 19, mirrored Becker with booming serves and wicked winners from the baseline. In the fifth set, Becker began to assert himself, and Damm's inexperience started to show.
"After the first set, I knew this guy really played good tennis," Becker said of Damm, who is ranked 116th and was playing in his first Grand Slam event. "After the first set, I had to get my mind into being very active and aggressive. It was what I needed. It was good for me."
While those two matches might have been the most compelling, they were clearly not the longest played yesterday. Jakob Hlasek of Switzerland upset No. 6 seed and French Open finalist Petr Korda of Czechoslovakia in five sets -- 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 16-14 -- and more than four hours. Guy Forget of France, the No. 9 seed, defeated Anders Jarryd of Sweden, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 10-8.
It seemed appropriate, coming on the anniversary of Wimbledon's longest match -- a five-set, 112-game, five-hour and 12-minute first-round marathon between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell in 1969. The match between McEnroe and Cash will certainly take its place among the best played in this venerable tournament.
"It was a very good standard of tennis," Cash said. "It was great tennis. If he plays to that standard, he's going to go a long way this year. But after five tough sets like that, I think it's going to be hard."
Said McEnroe: "It was good tennis. It was fun. The end was fun."
When the end came, Cash buried a backhand into the net, McEnroe raised two weary arms in triumph and clenched his fists. The crowd stood and applauded, first as the players put on their warm-ups, then as they walked slowly off the court.