Davenport fast out of blocks but wary of tougher hurdles ahead

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The Independent Online

The top seed, Lindsay Davenport, hardly broke sweat in disposing of the 28-year-old Russian Alina Jidkova yesterday, and that took some doing on a day when there were small pools of perspiration forming even in the queue for the ice-cream stall. In the sweltering heat of Centre Court even the electronic scoreboard nodded off, twice falling a couple of points behind in the attempt to keep up with Davenport's almost embarrassing dominance.

The 1999 champion took all of 19 minutes to conclude the first set 6-0 against a woman who has never proceeded beyond the first round in five attempts, and a relatively sparse crowd sought its entertainment where it could, finding a bit of mirth, in the regrettable absence of any errant pigeons or amusing cries of "come on Tim", in the Danish umpire's curious tendency to say "13" rather than "15".

If the towering Davenport is to get into her considerable stride here, she will need more of a work-out than this mismatch - which finished 6-0, 6-2 - and should arguably not have been staged on the premier show court, for it was anything but a show.

She had said beforehand that the invasion of the -ovas is great for the women's game, but this particular -ova did not pose any kind of a challenge to her game. It was all -ova far too quickly. That said, Davenport - currently in her sixth, longest and most unexpected stint as world No 1 - looked in fine fettle. Her serve is not a thing of beauty, with an awkward little skip and jump reminiscent of someone learning to dance the Charleston, but it has great rhythm and depth and was too powerful for Jidkova, whose own first serve was, on average, 25mph slower.

However, if this engaging 29-year-old American is to win her fourth major title, and her first for five years, she will have to overcome the recent pattern of history. Only once in seven years, Serena Williams in 2003, has the top seed won the women's singles title.

The days when the top seed won year after year as happened during the Buggin's Turn era of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and was extended by the rise of Steffi Graf, are long gone.

For a while it looked as though the Williams sisters might revive it. Instead, with several fancied contenders likely to glide easily into the second week, this is already beginning to look like the most open championship for years. Indeed it is the first Grand Slam event for two years in which the five top-ranked women are all competing.

"And that's great," said Davenport yesterday. "With Kim [Clijsters] and Venus [Williams] too, even though they're not in the top five, we're on our way back to having all the really great players playing at the same time. It's going to be, like the French, one of the toughest Slams we've had in a couple of years for that reason."

The top seed was understandably upbeat after her opening match, but conceded that her victory was too easy to shed much light on her form. "I don't try to read too much into particular matches," she said. "I was aggressive with my shots and I served well. That's important on grass, so that's great. But I know more than anybody that in 48 hours the exact opposite can happen in this freaky sport."

So who will emerge from this freaky sport as Wimbledon's 2005 women's singles champion? Davenport, who, incidentally, says that the worst thing about coming to Wimbledon is not being able to bring her Rottweilers, is rightly top dog in the seedings, but Maria Sharapova will not give up her title lightly, and the third seed, Amélie Mauresmo, was also in ominously good form yesterday, commencing her 6-3, 6-2 hammering of the left-handed Hungarian Melinda Czink with an 111mph ace, and hitting not a single unforced error on return of serve.

Mauresmo can be an awesome player when her mentality is right, and must be a decent bet to go beyond the semi-final stage which she reached in 2002 and 2004.

Nor, as Davenport says, should Clijsters be discounted. Fresh from winning at Eastbourne last week, she accounted yesterday for one of this year's crop of plucky Brits, 19-year-old Katie O'Brien. Clijsters, returning from wrist surgery, made a mockery of her 132 world ranking when she beat Davenport in the final at Indian Wells this year.

Unfortunately, the 320th-ranked O'Brien could not make a similar mockery of 307 places, predictably losing in straight sets to the Belgian, now ranked 13 in the world, but seeded 15 here.