Britain's gardeners must love the start of the grass-court season, which can nearly always be relied upon to bring a break in any spell of dry weather. After weeks of rising temperatures and barely a drop of rain in the south-east, the Aegon Championships began here in west London yesterday under a typically overcast sky after the start was delayed by nearly an hour because of rain.
Andy Murray's first grass-court practice session had been curtailed by rain 24 hours earlier, but when the skies cleared early yesterday afternoon the world No 4 took the chance to test his injured right ankle. Although he has had to go back on painkillers, Murray said he expected to be fit to compete here this week. He was due to play doubles today with his brother Jamie, against Britain's Ken Skupski and the Belgian Xavier Malisse, and his first singles match tomorrow, against Malisse or Germany's Matthias Bachinger.
Murray, who hit with his fellow Britons Ross Hutchins and Colin Fleming, practised for two and a half hours with a brace on his right ankle, which matched the one he always wears on his left. "It seems OK," Murray said of the tendon injury he suffered during the French Open 10 days ago. "I'm getting used to playing with a brace on my right ankle as I've only ever had one on the left before."
The Scot came off painkillers after his defeat to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals at the French Open. "It's a bit sore when I'm not taking any pills, but when you are taking a lot of pills you do feel great after matches," Murray said. "I finished the match with Rafa and I was great. Then you're off them and you feel a bit sore again."
He added: "I'm sure I'll be fine. I just need to be careful because the grass, even though it's the best here, is very slippery at the beginning of the tournament."
Nadal arrived last night and was due to have his first practice session on grass barely 24 hours after his triumph in Paris. The top eight seeds all have first-round byes, which meant that much of the interest on the opening day focused on Oliver Golding, a 17-year-old from Richmond who is potentially the best British player to emerge since Murray.
Golding reached the semi-finals of the Wimbledon boys' tournament last year and has made good progress through the junior ranks, but had never even played on the second-tier Challenger circuit, let alone the main tour. Thrust into the spotlight on centre court, he was far from disgraced in losing 6-3, 6-4 to Nicolas Mahut, a 29-year-old Frenchman who was runner-up here four years ago.
Mahut is a highly experienced grass-court player and was on the losing side of the net in last year's record 11-hour marathon against John Isner at Wimbledon. The world No 103 beat Golding with a single break of serve in both sets. Golding, who served well and showed few signs of nerves in front of the biggest audience he has faced, forced three break points of his own but was unable to take any of them.
The teenager was happy to have matched Mahut for long periods and said the main lesson he would take from the match was the need to stay focused. "If you make a couple of mistakes against players at this level that's it, they don't give you another chance to get back into the match," Golding said.
"Today I definitely played a couple of cheap points to give my serve away, once in each set, and that was it. I managed to get into a couple of his service games, but on the three break points he came up with something too good."
Golding has followed the Murray route by basing himself at an academy near Barcelona, where he plays mainly on clay. He competed in the junior tournament at the French Open last week, losing in the quarter-finals to the eventual champion, Bjorn Fratangelo, but says that grass is his favourite surface.
Britain was always guaranteed one winner on the opening day thanks to the first-round pairing of James Ward (world No 216) and Dan Cox (No 273), who were also given wild cards. Ward won 6-3, 6-1 and now plays Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka.