Having been beaten badly, worse, in fact, than ever before as a champion, John McEnroe sat limply, like a wilting orchid, staring straight ahead, seeing his whole world in front of him, and understanding none of it. "I didn't feel as fresh as I'd have liked to," he was saying, "I had no pace on my serve, didn't expect to be broken like that. I felt overpowered out there."

He shrugged.

"I didn't have it, just didn't have it . . . the way I played, the way I felt . . . " He let the sentence slide away and shook his head slightly. "I need some time. I need to think about it."

It was standing room only in the confessional, and the hush felt like a heavy, winter coat. What slight noise there was seemed like the sound of something once sewn tight now beginning to unravel. Working on mysteries without any clues, John McEnroe looked up, bleary eyed and maybe even a little afraid, and said, "I just feel overwhelmed right now, and I don't know how to explain it."

It might just be that this stunning and so very public pasting was only a temporary embarrassment in an otherwise brilliant career, a stumble, nothing more than the law of averages catching up with McEnroe as it does eventually to everyone. Kevin Curren might be a one-trick pony of a player, but under the right conditions his serve is as good a trick as a player can have. In 1983, he served another defending champion, Jimmy Connors, right off Court 2, dealing out 33 aces. His toss is low to begin with, and catching it on the rise, his serve comes at you as if catapulted from a mechanical slingshot. For three sets today all he did was keep reloading. You can't hit what you can't see. The way he was serving, McEnroe knew there was only one break he could hope for: "I was hoping he'd break an ankle." The score was 6-2, 6-2, 6-4, and it was over so quickly that McEnroe later said, "I'm not even sure if I played yet."

After the match in which he buried McEnroe, Curren came into the interview room to praise him. Curren laughed at the suggestion that McEnroe is in decline, saying McEnroe "may be the best ever -- along with Rod Laver. Arthur Ashe keeps saying he's looking for the next McEnroe. He'll be looking for a long time."

But it might well be that when people come to plot the graph of McEnroe's career, that this match will prove to be his first big step back down the ladder of mortality. And the way McEnroe spoke after it was over, you got the distinct feeling it hadn't come a moment too soon.

If he was listless and dispirited on Centre Court, hanging his head as if contemplating the executioner's song, he seemed particularly and almost painfully vulnerable in the interview. He talked about being overpowered by Curren, and recalled feeling similarly helpless a few years ago. Players were hitting the ball harder than he was, so he changed rackets; it proved to be the equalizer he needed. "It seems to be happening again; people seem to be hitting it harder and harder," he said, almost sighing. "It's a very frustrating feeling. I'm gonna have to think about this." Can he simply dial up the boost one more time? And if he can, does he really want to? In 1982, after McEnroe had displaced him as No. 1, Bjorn Borg walked away from tennis rather than keep stoking a dying fire. How long can a person keep boiling?

"I felt a little old out there," McEnroe said. "I'm not saying 26 is old, but I've played a lot of matches, and it catches up to you. I think I have to regroup." Leaning forward, he tossed the next line off as if it was an old sock: "I've found it's getting a little overwhelming to be No. 1 again."

What did that mean?

Is he burning out? Borg-ing?

"I can understand Bjorn walking away," McEnroe said. "To be No. 1 and then not be No. 1 is very difficult, to see someone start beating you regularly and know you're not to going to get any better."

Was it Borg he was talking about?

Or was it the fate he knew would eventually, maybe even soon befall him?

The worst thing an athlete can have is doubt.

McEnroe is swimming in it.

"I'll be back," he promised weakly. "I just don't know exactly when."

In 1984, he had his greatest year, winning 82 of 85 matches and both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In 1985, he has already lost five times.

"I don't know that it's my game as much as my mentality that's not good right now," he said.

He looked quite tired, like a virus had spread through him, first hollowing him out, then caving him in. It seemed as if all the bad, bratty, contentious karma he'd sent out for so many years had all of a sudden formed a fist and punched him.

These haven't been fast times lately. First the flap over him and Connors refusing to sign the pledge of good conduct required to play Davis Cup. Then coming over here. The British press and McEnroe are long-time antagonists; one baits, the other swallows and spits back. Mostly the British press asks him about his relationship with Tatum O'Neal. Mostly he calls them unprintable names. Theirs is a childish, spiteful, ugly game.

"I feel uptight the whole time I'm here. It bothers me to go through this every year," McEnroe admitted. "I can come here and tell myself that it didn't, or tell you that it doesn't. But it wears on you after a while. I've turned out to be an easy target here." He forced a smile. "I'm not that interesting to be constantly harassed the way I am."

After a while the words came out sounding like a plaintive stream of consciousness. "No one writes about Lendl's private life. No one writes about Connors' private life. I shouldn't have to not bring Tatum over here. I don't feel like I've received the respect that I should. I've been the No. 1 player the last four years. What have I done to deserve this? What have I done this year? I haven't gone out of my apartment. I haven't brought Tatum. What have I done this year to deserve this?"

The simple answer is nothing.

The more complex answer has to do with a scale that seeks to balance fairness on one side against the cumulative weight of a person's public behavior on the other. Sometimes the best you can hope for is that it turns out even in the end. And in this case it seems to be seeking its own level.