Naomi Cavaday is the Halley's Comet of British sport. For months on end the 19-year-old from Chislehurst hurtles around the tennis universe, noticed by nobody in particular, before making a spectacular but fleeting appearance in the Wimbledon sky. The latest sighting was here on Centre Court, where she briefly threatened to eclipse Venus only to disappear over the horizon once again.
In the first round here 12 months ago Cavaday had two match points against Martina Hingis. Yesterday the world No 197 did not get as close to knocking out Venus Williams, the defending champion, but outplayed her for 20 minutes before the American showed all her customary tenacity to win 7-6, 6-1. Williams now plays another Briton, Anne Keothavong.
This was only Cavaday's fifth tournament at senior tour level. While injuries and illness have restricted her outings this year, she has picked up useful ranking points from tournaments at obscure tennis outposts like New Delhi and Patras in Greece.
Williams has played in only seven events this year and has yet to reach a final, but past experience tells you never to write her off. When she won here three years ago she was the lowest-ranked (No 16) and lowest-seeded (No 14) champion in Wimbledon history, a record she broke last year as the world No 31 and No 23 seed.
The 28-year-old American lost to Flavia Pennetta in the third round of the French Open, but Williams has grown accustomed to turning up at the All England Club after a fruitless clay-court season. Her crunching serve, thunderous groundstrokes and assured volleys deliver a far greater dividend on grass.
For four games, nevertheless, Williams was outhit by a teenager finding the form of her life. Breaking Williams' serve in the opening game, Cavaday raced into a 3-1 lead by going for her shots. Her cross-court backhands were a particularly potent weapon, while Williams had trouble dealing with both the weight of her serves and the slice that kept the ball low and swung it away from her backhand.
Williams broke back to 3-3, but Cavaday took the set into a tie-break. The Briton made a crucial mistake at 4-5 by putting an easy backhand in the net and, although a service winner saved the first set point Williams took the second with a clever serve into the Briton's body.
The first set lasted just under an hour, but the second was over after only 21 minutes. After the opening game Cavaday won only five more points and just one (a double-fault) in Williams' last three service games.
"In the first set I was matching her shot for shot," Cavaday said. "I really enjoyed it. Then the second set got away from me a little bit. I think she started to relax." Asked whether she had suffered any nerves, Cavaday said: "As soon as I walked on court I was pretty relaxed. I was comfortable, even playing against Venus. I felt I belonged there."
Despite the encouragement Cavaday could draw from this performance, however, the pattern of the match was all too familiar. Opponents frequently have early trouble dealing with Cavaday's left-handed game, but as they get used to it the Briton finds it hard to find another dimension to her play.
There are also physical issues. Cavaday can wilt badly in the latter stages and appears to be carrying too much poundage for someone aspiring to compete with the world's best. Having lost weight last year, she has put it back on in subsequent months.
Williams nevertheless refused to criticise Cavaday's level of fitness. "I thought she moved pretty well," the world No 7 said. "She got a lot more balls back than I was expecting."