Federer turns on heat before rain cools skills of master at work

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The Independent Online

It was as if he had never been away. Eleven months and two weeks after Roger Federer had swept Andy Roddick aside with a glorious display of grass-court tennis to secure his third successive Wimbledon title, the king was back lording it over his court yesterday.

The first point of his first match, against Richard Gasquet, was an ace. The second game, featuring a classic forehand down the line and a punched winning volley, saw the world No 1 break serve to 30. The third was won to love. From 3-0 up the champion served out to take the set 6-3 in 26 minutes.

Unfortunately for Federer an even older tradition than Swiss domination is SW19 precipitation. The players had emerged on time for the 1pm start, despite overcast skies, but 44 minutes later the ground staff were flying across the court as fast as a Federer forehand, covers in tow.

If the first-day crowd heaved a collective sigh of disappointment, at least they had had an early glimpse of the Federer trademarks: a smooth service action (despite a double fault on the second point), forehands cracked into the corners with apparently effortless ease, backhands unleashed after a sweeping swing of the racket and points constructed with the care of a master builder.

When the rain came Gasquet was leading 2-1 in the second set, having dropped only one point in his two service games. Lesser players might have melted in the heat of Federer's early onslaught, but the 20-year-old Frenchman is almost as cool a customer as the world No 1.

Gasquet soon started to give as good as he got in the baseline rallies and even found the confidence to make the occasional foray to the net. He has proved his credentials on grass by reaching the last 16 on his Wimbledon debut 12 months ago and winning the Nottingham title two years in a row. "Maybe I'm the Federer of Nottingham," he said after his latest success on Saturday.

Federer sees something of himself in Gasquet, a stylish striker of the ball who has been earmarked for greatness ever since he was hailed as the future of French tennis when he appeared on the cover of a tennis magazine at the age of nine.

Raised in the warm sunshine of Béziers in the south of France, Gasquet began playing at the age of four under the knowledgeable eye of parents who were both tennis coaches. World junior champion, after winning the French and US Open boys events, he started breaking senior records when he became the youngest player ever to qualify for an ATP Masters series event, at Monte Carlo in 2002, at the age of 15 years and 10 months.

Having beaten Nikolay Davydenko and Adrian Voinea in qualifying at Monte Carlo, Gasquet went on to beat Franco Squillari in the first round. The following month he made his Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros at the age of 15 years, 11 months and nine days.

In the last six months Gael Monfils, 10 weeks Gasquet's junior, has stolen a march as the standard-bearer for the next generation of French players, having climbed to No 23 in the world. Elbow and stomach injuries have held Gasquet back in the last eight months and his ranking has suffered. From No 12 in the world last September, he had dropped to No 66 until his Nottingham victory put him up 16 places.

Gasquet, however, could derive encouragement from his past performances against Federer. He is one of only four players - Rafael Nadal, David Nalbandian and Marat Safin are the others - who have beaten the world No 1 since the start of last year, having won in a third set tie-break at Monte Carlo last April.

Before yesterday the two men had met on three subsequent occasions, Federer winning each time, but only after close contests. The Swiss won in the final at Hamburg last May, in two sets at Indian Wells in March and in three sets on grass at Halle earlier this month.

If yesterday's weather strengthened the view that nothing changes at Wimbledon - the first tournament at the present site in 1922 was not completed until the third Wednesday after it rained every day - the new outfits for on-court officials suggested a hankering for the past. The line judges in particular looked like characters from a 1930s garden party.

Federer, in contrast, was wearing a new shirt incorporating something called Nike Sphere Macro React technology. His kit manufacturers have come up with a range of tennis gear which features vents that open up as the wearer sweats, helping perspiration to evaporate. Mind you, they could have done with signing up a serial sweater like David Nalbandian, of Argentina, to showcase their innovation rather than a man who seems to have been born without a sweat gland in his body.

The champion had arrived on court wearing a white sports jacket made for him by Nike. The jacket featured a crest incorporating his Leo star sign, an F for his surname, a tuft of grass, the Swiss cross and three rackets, one for each of his Wimbledon titles.

Presumably he had gone on court hoping that one element of the design would be out of date within a fortnight.

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