Cheered on by the Friends actor Matt-hew Perry, Jennifer Capriati overwhelmed Switzerland's Marie-Gaianeh Mikaelian on Court 2 yesterday in less time than it takes to watch two episodes of her celebrity soul-mate goofing around as Chandler Bing.
Capriati's 6-2, 6-1 victory owed more to bang than Bing, the power and depth of her shots repeatedly forcing the 19-year-old on to the back foot and ensuring that she had to hit the ball further than usual. The first set was over in 25 minutes, but if Mikaelian thought that was quick, the second was even more chastening. She won only 13 points as the American prevailed in 21 minutes, closing out the match with her ninth ace.
Perry, currently appearing in Sexual Perversity in Chicago in London's West End, did his best not to become a distraction. Kitted out in shorts and shades, he watched intently, putting a concerned finger to his mouth as Capriati did the splits midway through the second set and contenting himself with an occasional, mumbled "Come on, Jen".
Capriati's friendship with Perry - a surname with a certain cachet at Wimbledon - is more than an alliance of high-profile personalities. He was the No 2 junior player in Canada at 13, the age at which she made her WTA tour debut. His rehabilitation after being addicted to painkillers had echoes of her problems with drug possession and shoplifting.
"I felt I kept the momentum going today," Capriati said. "I served well when I needed to - it makes things easier when you can come up with big serves." Having admitted to taking in a show in town, she was asked which one. Keen to nip in the bud any press speculation about herself and "Chandler", the eighth seed replied: "Can we talk about tennis?"
During the opening three days, the departed Daniela Hantuchova had been the only one of the top 10 women's seeds to drop a set. Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, the No 3 seed and French Open champion, was on the brink of joining the slimline Slovakian when her fellow 21-year-old, Italy's Flavia Pennetta, had break point at 6-5 in the first set.
A big hitter from Brindisi who made her Wimbledon debut on Monday, Pennetta had already broken Henin-Hardenne three times but also suffered an identical fate on her own serve. She could not break when it mattered most, however, and the French Open champion celebrated her reprieve by racing to a 7-2 success in the tiebreak.
The power and placement of Pennetta's shots had initially dragged Henin-Hardenne from one side of the court to the other, the Belgian's normally metronomic game being disrupted to the extent that her fabled backhand twice let her down when facing break points. Pennetta's serve never matched the rest of her armoury though, and in the second set she was routed 6-1.
Kim Clijsters, the No 2 seed, enjoyed an untroubled 6-3, 6-1 win over Samantha Reeves, of the United States, but the third Belgian involved in a major match, Els Callens, could not quite repeat the fright she gave Serena Williams in last year's tournament.
On that occasion, Callens led 4-2 in the first set and 5-3 in the second only to lose each on a tiebreak. This time, the champion prevailed 6-4, 6-4,although she endured a worrying wobble when Callens, trailing 4-0 in the second set, pulled back to 4-4.
Maybe, just maybe, the real challenge to the Williams sisters and the Belgians will come from Maria Sharapova. The 16-year-old wildcard entrant from Siberia (via Florida) who stands a fraction short of 6ft, followed up her opening-day drubbing of Ashley Harkleroad by overpowering Elena Bovina, her Russian compatriot, 6-3, 6-1, in exactly an hour.
"I feel I'm getting better with each match," a beaming Sharapova said, ominously for her next opponent, Jelena Dokic. "My serve percentage improved by 10 per cent today." Young enough to admit she is immersed in the new Harry Potter book (which the Willamses poo-pooed earlier this week), she also revealed she had taken to disguising herself in hat and glasses to avoid the paparazzi in Wimbledon village.
Dokic saw off Emmanuelle Gagliardi, of Switzerland, 6-1, 6-3 before offering an insight into why so many European countries produce better players than Britain. The No 11 seed from Serbia, who overcame the British wildcard Elena Baltacha in the first round, said: "I think European players are hungrier. I didn't have anything when I was growing up. I wasn't spoiled. I had nothing. And I worked for it."
One other grand-slam winner, apart from the conspicuous trio of Capriati, Henin-Hardenne and Williams, was in action yesterday. Spain's Conchita Martinez, the 1994 champion here and a mistress of spin long before the Prime Minister's henchmen gave it a bad name, reached the last 32, where she will face Russia's Anastasia Myskina, by beating Barbara Schett, of Austria, 6-2, 6-4. Game, Schett and match, as they might say in Friends.
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