If the word imperious can ever be applied to a man in a cardie, then imperious is what Roger Federer was yesterday in despatching the Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, thereby recording his 60th consecutive win on grass. Only six more men now stand between him and a sixth successive Wimbledon singles title, and even if Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal turn out to be two of them, nobody in these parts was betting against Federer becoming the first man since Bill Tilden, who dominated the US Open from 1920 to 1925, to win six Grand Slam titles on the trot. Despite all the difficulties he has faced in the past 12 months, including a bout of glandular fever and a humbling by Nadal in the final of the French Open, Federer set about his first-round business on Centre Court as if he had never been away.
Not everything was quite the same, though. The defending champion and No 1 seed sauntered into his beloved arena wearing not the familiar cream blazer but a chunky thick-weave cardigan, an interesting choice for a glorious summer's day and possibly as sartorially suspect as socks with sandals, but then Federer is as much a commercial as a sporting colossus.
If this match had been a close shave it would have been sponsored by Gillette, while the cardie, manufactured by Nike, is one of a limited edition of 230, marking his 230 weeks as world No 1. You too can own one, although it will set you back the best part of £300 and it won't look nearly as good as it does on the champ.
As for Hrbaty, he is nobody's idea of cannon-fodder – he reached a French Open semi-final, albeit as long ago as 1999 – but when the match got underway he must have been wishing that Nike had designed his opponent a thick-weave straitjacket. Federer won the first 11 points, and the spectators sensed that a humiliation might be in the offing. It was never quite that – indeed it was the 30-year-old Slovakian, at 4-1 down in the first set, who hit the shot of the match, a magical running flick with his back to the net – but Federer was in total control throughout against a man he considers a good friend. Hrbaty is a regular practice partner, whose rigorous approach to practice Federer says he learnt from early in his career, and they used to play doubles together.
At the changeover before what proved to be the final game of the match, Hrbaty asked Federer if he could sit next to him, and they chatted away as if they were playing a friendly Saturday evening game in Budleigh Salterton. The Centre Court crowd was charmed.
Ah, the Centre Court crowd. It took precisely 78 minutes of Wimbledon 2008 for some Oscar Wilde wannabe to cry out "C'mon Tim!", followed by the inevitable ripple of laughter and applause. But Federer was happy to encourage the good cheer, responding smilingly when a man interrupted his service routine by shouting "C'mon Roger, give him a chance!" By then he was 5-2 up in the third set. He knew, we all knew, that Hrbaty's chances were long gone.
In truth, they were gone before a ball was struck. Hrbaty has had surgery on both his elbow and his shoulder within the past 10 months, and has struggled ever since to find form. Nor has he played on grass since Wimbledon last year, whereas Federer bounced back from his Roland Garros misery by winning his fifth consecutive grass-court title at Halle, without dropping so much as a service game.
And yet one got the sense that if Hrbaty had managed to stretch the champion, there would have been plenty of knowing nods. Federer's game has been subject to more analysis than ever these past few weeks, a positive Federer Bureau of Investigation taking shape, with more than one old sage suggesting that the great man is not the force he was, and that Nadal, fresh from his remarkable victories at Roland Garros and Queen's, brings both a psychological and a physical edge to the All England Club.
Perhaps that is so, but it seems significant that Djokovic, when asked which half of the draw he would prefer to be in, said Nadal's. And Federer merely shrugged when asked afterwards if he had been unsettled by any of the doubting Thomases. "I haven't been reading and I haven't been listening ... so I haven't been affected," he said.
Nor did he play yesterday as if there were the slightest doubt in his own mind about his sovereignty over Centre Court. He whipped his backhands with devastating precision, while the second serve in particular looked in wonderful fettle. Still, Federer feels that he will need his A-game in the second round against the experienced Swede Robin Soderling.
"He's got a big game, great serve, aggressive baseline. Against me, he's had some issues, maybe not playing great in the most important moments. He gave up against me in Miami, which surprised me. Those are just signs of being a little mentally weak. But he's a guy I respect a lot. It's not a whole lot of fun playing against him in the second round of Wimbledon. I won't underestimate him."
A possible third-round opponent, the tricky Frenchman Gaël Monfils, withdrew yesterday, which might ease Federer's passage, and in round four he could meet the former world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt, who in the match of the day turned back the clock with a classic scampering, tormented, fist-pumping performance to overcome the young Dutchman Robin Haase, 6-7, 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2. More worrying for Federer, though, is Djokovic, who eventually found some ominously good form to beat Michael Berrer 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0. The Serb played some scintillating tennis to close out the match, and will not rue the fact that he was occasionally tested. It was useful preparation for the bigger tests to come.