WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND, JUNE 25 -- The courts of Wimbledon were lush and pretty, but they were not welcoming. Defending champion Boris Becker slipped and flailed against a teenaged qualifier, while top-seeded Ivan Lendl trailed by a set to an obscure doubles specialist before they ended this opening day with victories.
It should have been a pleasant return to Centre Court for Becker, the 22-year-old West German who has won this title three times. But Luis Herrera of Mexico, an adept 18-year-old who had never before played in a major pro tournament, turned their first-round match into a nervous one. Becker had to fend off Herrera in two tiebreakers and then recover from a 5-3 deficit in the third set before he emerged, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-4), 7-5.
Becker was relieved to claim any kind of first-round victory with the memory of a first-round upset at the French Open last month still vivid. He is hoping a return to the All England Club, which he terms his tennis birthplace, will help him regain his usual form, but today it treated him unfamiliarly. He bemoaned 14 double faults, issued some of his famous guttural screams, and constantly lost his feet on the damp, slippery lawn.
"It was like a person I hadn't seen in a year or so," he said.
Lendl has spent the last 13 weeks practicing exclusively on grass, at 30 determined to claim the one Grand Slam title that has eluded him. So something akin to shock ran through the grounds when he trailed Christian Miniussi of Argentina by 1-4 after just 13 minutes. But Lendl's new ease on grass gradually asserted itself, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4, and he was unworried afterward.
"You don't worry about what you have been doing, you worry about what you are going to do to get out of it," Lendl said.
Those trials typified the chaotic first-round play. The field was strewn with trouble-making, unpredictable qualifiers and oddities. The matches were so lengthy that the schedule was not completed; darkness fell before Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion who is seeded No. 16, played Spain's Jose-Francisco Altur.
Dan Goldie, the former McLean, Va., resident who last year was an unseeded quarterfinalist, had one of the few routine victories of the afternoon, beating Ralph Kok of the Netherlands, 7-5, 6-1, 7-5. Goldie, ranked No. 59, is just regaining his form after several idle months with a stress fracture in his left shin.
Seventh-seeded Brad Gilbert of the United States won a match in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since 1988. But it wasn't an easy one over long-haired flamboyant Bruno Oresar of Yugoslavia, 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. Pat Cash, the injury-riddled 1987 Wimbledon champion, was pushed to five sets by qualifier Dmitri Poliakov of the Soviet Union, 4-6, 7-6 (7-1), 5-7, 6-4, 6-1.
Cash is gradually finding his game again after severing an Achilles' tendon and sitting out for over a year, missing Wimbledon last season. How much longer he will remain is in doubt because he strained a hip flexor before he overcame Poliakov, a 22-year-old ranked No. 258 who had not played a match on the circuit this season. "I thought, 'When is my luck going to change?' " he said. It was chiefly a hard-serving duel, Cash with 15 aces to 10 double faults, Poliakov with 10 aces to 11 double faults.
"I'm just happy to be out here playing at Wimbledon at this stage," Cash said. "I expect to go home and have a nice dinner, that's about it. I don't expect too much. I'm taking it day to day, to be honest."
No. 16 Yannick Noah of France was the first men's seed to go out, dismissed by Wayne Ferreira of South Africa in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2, while No. 16 Barbara Paulus of Austria was the first to fall among women, 19-year-old Sarah Loosemore of Great Britain giving the crowds a home interest with her upset, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.
Once, the 176th-ranked Ferreira's victory over Noah would have been called a major upset. But Noah has been beaten in the first round eight times this season. The indignity was compounded when he double-faulted on match point.
Hana Mandlikova last week announced that Wimbledon would mark her retirement as a singles player at age 28. The Czech-born champion's career almost ended this afternoon at the hands of Laura Lapi of Italy, who held three match points as she served at 5-4, 40-0 in the third set. They traded 15 service breaks and a stream of unforced errors, until Mandlikova finally outlasted Lapi, 6-3, 3-6, 11-9.
The trouble was caused in part by the plush lawns, which played softly and damply, seeming to embrace the ball. The field suffered through sort of a reacquaintance session with the rare surface. Even Becker, usually the most comfortable player within the club's confines, was uncertain in his footing.
"It seems like there's more grass on it," Becker said. "It's almost too good of a court."
Some of his hesitancy also came from his experience at the French Open, where he was stunned in the first round by Goran Ivanisevic of Yugoslavia. His game was slightly disorganized, while Herrera was an upstart who showed no fear.
Becker used two aces to take the first set tiebreaker, and it appeared he would take the second set routinely, leading by a service break. But Herrera climbed back in it in the eighth game, when he gained break point with a laced forehand return down the line that Becker dove at and missed, rolling in the grass with a frustrated roar. Herrera also had the temerity to lead the second tiebreaker, 3-1, before Becker reeled off three straight points to regain control.
Herrera led by a service break for most of the third, needing just one more game as he served for the set at 5-4. But Becker was in the midst of sweeping the last four games in sucession, Herrera unable to hold his serve. He finally showed his inexperience on match point, with a double fault. Becker loped off the court with a smile, having avoided embarrassment.
Lendl also complained of the soft condition of the courts and low bounces that were difficult to dig out of the ground. Miniussi is a stocky 22-year-old with a deft touch and surprisingly powerful serve. Not only is he a doubles specialist, he is a clay-courter, but he played the first set as if he were raised on grass. He had five of his seven aces in that set as Lendl moved jerkily, unable to lift the Argentine's low sliding shots and pushing clumsy volleys in the net.
But Lendl's desire for a Wimbledon trophy borders on a fixation, and he has meticulously labored on grass over the last three months. It showed in his self-assurance when trailing. He ultimately seized control with 17 imposing aces, and won seven games in love as he gradually built his momentum.
"Before, I might be saying, 'Okay be careful, you are playing on grass,' " Lendl said. "Now I don't worry about it."
If Lendl and Becker were less than their best, neither berated himself. Becker's philosophy in Grand Slam events is to get by until he needs to raise his game in the latter stages. "Obviously, I was content to go through," he said. Lendl too was looking further down the road. "I think whoever is picked now is not important," he said. "It is the guy who survives two weeks from now and holds the trophy."