"Serves that travel faster than gossip" promised the posters for a new advertising campaign aimed at highlighting the "strength and tenacity, grace and fluidity" of women's tennis. Venus Williams soon hit the 114mph mark yesterday, but for all that she was truly tested she could have been leaning over a garden fence swapping small talk with a neighbour.
Williams, the No 4 seed, took just 50 minutes to overpower Stanislava Hrozenska, of Slovakia, 6-2, 6-2. Her 21-year-old opponent had played at Wimbledon only once, when she did not advance beyond the qualifying rounds, so we must await a more searching examination of the former champion's potential to regain the crown as the week goes by.
Talking of crowns, Williams sported a silver tiara which sparkled in the sun (eat your heart out, David Beckham), adding to her regal aura. To Hrozenska, several inches shorter, it must have seemed at times as if the American was as tall as the giant crane towering over the north of the court from which television shot some of the exchanges. Lobbing her, which the Slovak gamely attempted more than once, merely provoked the most ferocious of smashes.
Williams began as if the match were an inconvenience to be negotiated as swiftly as possible. Each of her first three serves was an ace and all were timed at more than 100mph. So routine did her superiority seem that when she put her fourth serve into the net, the stands groaned on being reminded that she was mortal.
She actually dropped her serve at 5-1 in the first set, having twice broken Hrozenska to love, but immediately broke back to wrap up the set. A similar pattern emerged in the second set, Williams mixing brutal backhand winners, a 100 per cent completion rate on shots at the net and an awesome ability to move around the court with a tendency to double-faults; she served nine in all.
When it was over, she danced to the net and strode from the court beaming broadly, pausing only to sign a scrap of paper thrust into her hand by a member of the London Fire Brigade ("It's not for me," he claimed, in time-honoured fashion, "but for a little girl").
How she would like to inscribe her name on the winner's trophy again. After losing four successive Grand Slam finals to her sister, Serena, and failing to win a major tournament since the United States Open two years ago, Venus badly needs to triumph here. She talks about being happy to take snaps of her sibling collecting trophies, and about shopping being her real passion, yet at 23 she is too young to be settling for second best.
Venus later revealed that it was her first match on grass this season, the green courts on which she usually practises in Florida having been drenched by rain. "It is very easy for me to adjust from hard to clay and clay to grass," she said, oozing self-assurance. "It's always OK for me." She also felt no problems with the abdominal strain that affected her at Roland Garros. "Those times are over. I feel a lot healthier."
Much of her press conference was taken up by discussion of her new outfit, a Diane Von Furstenberg creation she calls "my corset dress", and with her choice of bedside reading matter. When she last won here, she admitted devouring the latest Harry Potter novel. This time, she felt she might be "a little old" for such wizardry. "Sounds crazy but right now I'm reading a textbook, Apparel Manufacturing." Ominously for her opponents, she has also brought along Steven King's grimly compelling Misery.
After the phoney wars of Edgbaston and Eastbourne, with their silly-season sub-plots about grunting and anorexia, Belgium's Kim Clijsters, for one, seemed impatient to get on with the real business. Following her beaten boyfriend, Lleyton Hewitt, on to Centre Court, the No 2 seed gave Rossana Neffa-De Los Rios, of Paraguay, a taste of sporting misery, prevailing 6-0, 6-0 in just 32 minutes.
Clijsters rejected suggestions that she had felt an extra sense of motivation after what happened to Hewitt. "No more, no less," said the 20-year-old. "Of course I'd have loved him to win, but if your opponent is better, all you can do is keep fighting to the finish. It's not nice for him to go through this now, but I'm sure he will get over it."
Despite the nagging knowledge that she has yet to win a Grand Slam, Clijsters applied the same philosophical approach to her own prospects. "I'll work and fight as hard as I can. If it happens, it happens. I won't be able to blame myself for not trying hard enough. But I love playing here, and you play well where you feel good. This Grand Slam event means more to me than any other."
Lindsay Davenport, the 1999 champion and No 5 seed, found the 19-year-old Australian, Samantha Stosur, an altogether feistier proposition. Stosur, in her first Wimbledon match, lost only 7-6, 7-5 and had the satisfaction of rattling the American when she broke to lead 5-4 in the second set. But as another of the new WTA slogans puts it, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scored on", and Davenport duly recovered to win the next three games.
Was it a good day or a bad one? "I was just a kind of day I got through," Davenport shrugged. It had been a "huge struggle" to claw her way back from a succession of injuries to No 5 in the world. "Hopefully," she added, "I've got one last Slam in me."
Fresh from winning at Eastbourne, Chanda Rubin made short work of Iva Majoli, of Croatia, advancing 6-3, 6-0. Rubin, the No 7 seed, has no great Wimbledon pedigree, her best performance in 10 appearances having been to reach the fourth round last year. For the vanquished Croat, the world No 4 after winning the French Open in 1997, her second-set capitulation was in stark contrast with the heroics of her compatriot Ivo Karlovic.Reuse content