John McEnroe, the insurgent colonial, has been in England for three weeks and the Empire still stands.

The McAttack began late this afternoon on Court 1. It was 4-all in the first set when McEnroe served a double fault and sliced a divot of dirt from the base line with his racket. Umpire Malcolm Huntington warned him for abuse of equipment, since there is no penalty for abuse of sacred sod. Just "trying to put the grass back in the hole I made," McEnroe said pointedly.

Then, serving at 2-0 in the third, his opponent, Florin Segarceanu, had the audacity to return a serve for a point. McEnroe banged the ball into the net and was called for a point penalty. He called for higher authorities. He again called for the higher authorities, referee Alan Mills and Kurt Nielsen, the Grand Prix supervisor, who overruled the umpire and rescinded the penalty. "A rather harsh decision," Mills said.

"Appeasement!" the crowd cried. "Justice at last," sighed McEnroe, who won, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-3.

At this hour the city remains calm.

In a country where a stiff upper lip is part of the national anatomy, McEnroe's pout is a provocation. His very being is an assault to British sensibilities. It is hard to believe that one 5-foot-11, 165-pound tennis player could send an entire nation into a dither. But it has been this way for years. "There's something about me," McEnroe said. "I can't even explain what it is."

John le Carre, the novelist, who knows a thing or two about cold war, offered this diagnosis of the strained foreign relations. "The English notion of the sportsman is losing with grace and not winning without it," he said. "I think he contributed substantially to the destruction of the authority of the umpire. That sort of bullying embarrasses the Brits terribly. There is something very deep inside that says, 'It goes too far.' In our national game, cricket, the definition of a gentleman is to get out on a wrong verdict and to leave the grounds smiling.

"What he doesn't accept is the imperfections of human judgment. While he's making errors himself, he seems to demand perfection in his parents. In that sense, the kids like him because he's rude to the schoolmaster. But Wimbledon is a middle-aged institution, and most of the Brits in their sports cling to older concepts of gentlemanly behavior."

Rex Bellamy, the tennis corresponent for the Times, said, "Basically, it is the English character to take adversity without flinching. We don't like know-alls, bigheads, loudmouths, crybabies and quitters. There are times when McEnroe comes into some or all of these categories. McEnroe is all things un-English."

There is something innately antithetical about McEnroe, who believes it is his inalienable right to question authority, and the British, who revere it. London tabloids sensed this immediately when he arrived here unknown and unseeded in 1977. They have been at odds, goading him, ever since.

First McEnroe became McNasty and then the Prince of Wails. Three weeks ago, after his tantrum at the French Open, he was demoted from superbrat to gutterbrat. Three days before Wimbledon began, a headline in the Sun proclaimed, "Mac's Fury Shocks Kids." Some teen-agers, it seemed, had overheard him swearing on a practice court.

After his first match, when his behavior was as mild as the day it was played, the Sun proclaimed, "McMoaner Rules."

McEnroe retaliated by writing a front-page, bylined story for the News of the World. "Hot Tennis Star Signs up with the Top Paper," it announced. In language that barely resembles his own, McEnroe began his mea culpa: "It is vital, in my opinion, that tennis maintains a strong and watchful hand against swearing. I'm bitterly disappointed with myself every time I lapse."

Journalists attending a press conference were disappointed to learn that McEnroe couldn't remember whether he had been paid for the story. He thought it was a fair account. "I apologize for the things I've done wrong," he said today. "It's not like I'm claiming I'm the nicest guy in the world. But honesty is the worst policy around here."

The difference this year is that the criticism is not confined to the pulpy press. Players are running out of patience with him, too. They believe he gets away with things that much lesser-known players don't because officials cannot afford to penalize him severely. He believes he gets away with little (nothing more than any other top player) because he is the center of attention. And he is convinced that he asks only what is his right within the rules.

But the act is wearing thin. The other day, after John Fitzgerald lost to Mats Wilander, Fitzgerald said pointedly that he wished his opponent well. "I think the players are as sick of the antics as the public is," he said. "Most of the players want the nice guy on top again."

Hank Pfister, who lost a set today when he was called for a game penalty in the middle of a tie breaker, said, "He detracts from the game. He's an habitual complainer. All the time, 10 times a match, he's under the umpire's chair. I'm as hot as any guy, but he seems to be under the umpire's chair all the time.

"I saw McEnroe on the court today. He must have been at the chair many times. There's so much pressure on the umpire in the chair (not) to default and give game penalties against the guy who is the biggest draw in the tournament. Once they do that, the promoters will jump down their throats. So they get a little leery."

Trey Waltke, who lost to Ivan Lendl (6-4, 6-2, 6-3) today but charmed Centre Court with his 1930s period outfit, said, "I think the players have reached a point now where they're a little bit tired of it. John is a nice guy in the locker room but on the court he gets away with a lot . . . I think the feeling is that if it had been anyone else, he would have been defaulted games ago."

The odd thing about McEnroe is that he seems oblivious to what he's done, what he has wrought. "What have I done?" he asks again and again. "I questioned one call for 10 seconds throughout the match," he said. "The other things I questioned are things that are in the rulebooks . . . Anything I did today I had a right to do."

He stomps and stamps and grimaces and groans and plays some marvelous tennis. But he said it wasn't much fun. The crowd stomps and stamps and grimaces and groans and loves every minute of it.