So, it was with perfect historical symmetry that McEnroe chose Centre Court to achieve another personal landmark yesterday.
Never before in his career had he rallied from a two-set deficit to win a match until his 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 8-6 opening-round triumph over Australian Darren Cahill.
"I was pushing myself; I was telling myself it would be really nice to be able to do that," said the fifth-seeded McEnroe. "I'm proud that I came from two sets down."
Adding an extra historical footnote to the victory were McEnroe's recent Grand Slam tournament appearances. In two of his last three Grand Slam outings, McEnroe had fallen prey in the second round to young Australians such as Cahill. At the U.S. Open last year, it was Mark Woodforde who bounced him out of the tournament, and at last year's Wimbledon, he lost to Wally Masur.
"The thought did cross my mind that I was sick of losing to Australians," said McEnroe.
The matchup of McEnroe and Cahill was expected to be the best of the first- round pairings. Cahill, ranked No. 26 in the world, was the highest-ranked player not to be seeded. His grass-court resume - which included a victory last year over Pat Cash, then the defending Wimbledon champion, at the Queen's Club tournament - spelled danger for McEnroe.
"I expected a tough match, but I didn't expect that I'd be in a situation like this," said McEnroe.
He got into that situation after a horrific first two sets. From the moment he committed a double fault on the first point of the match, the first of nine he made during the first two sets, McEnroe was out of form, out of sync and almost out of the tournament.
"When I walked out there, I was mentally and physically paralyzed," said McEnroe.
But he broke out of his malaise, by breaking Cahill for a 2-0 lead in the third set. From that point on, McEnroe broke out his entire repertoire of shots - from delicate dinks to blistering passing shots, to touch volleys, to pounding serves.
McEnroe said afterward he didn't feel as if it was a final-round match, but it was hard to tell from his own performance, from the superior effort by Cahill or from the crowd's electricity in watching both players rise to the test of a fifth-set struggle.
In the closing stretch of the 3-hour, 22-minute match, danger lurked on every serve.
At 2-2, Cahill served his way out of a 0-40 hole with a service winner, an ace and a winning backhand volley.
McEnroe, trailing 3-4, opened the eighth game with his 15th double fault. Two points later, he was down 15-30 when Cahill caught him flat-footed at the net with a perfect, winning lob. McEnroe then pulled even at 30-30 on a winning volley and two points later, he evened the match at 4-4.
At 4-5, McEnroe again had to climb to the heights of a champion to stay in the match. At 30-15, he bravely went for two big second serves and he came up with two aces.
Finally in the 13th game, McEnroe showed the shot-making ability that only he can master. First came a Cahill double fault that knotted the score at 30-30. Then McEnroe did his own work. On a short second serve, he whipped a cross-court backhand passing shot for 30-40. The lead was his when he duplicated the shot, this time off a Cahill's volley that didn't have much punch.
"He was too good today; he deserved to win," said Cahill.
McEnroe faltered briefly in the last game. A volleying error and his 16th double fault of the match were sandwiched around two winning points to make the score 30-30. But it was as if McEnroe had just been setting the stage for his closing act.
He nailed an ace and then fired another, his 11th of the match, to secure the victory and a second-round match tomorrow against Richey Reneberg.
McEnroe's comeback overshadowed opening-round victories by defending women's champion Steffi Graf, three-time champion Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who is seeking a record ninth Wimbledon singles title.
Graf, playing her first match since losing the French Open final to Arantxa Sanchez 17 days ago, beat Julie Salmon of Britain, 6-1, 6-2.
Navratilova, who lost to Graf in last year's championship match, downed Jill Hetherington of Canada, 6-3, 6-2, and Evert routed fellow American Peanut Louie Harper, 6-1, 6-1. Third-seeded Gabriela Sabatini also advanced with a 6-1, 6-0 victory over Diane Balestrat of Australia.
In other men's singles action, eighth-seeded Tim Mayotte and No. 12 Kevin Curren won their opening matches.