Top four set for a grand showdown as they hurry into grass-court season

Murray begins Queen's defence as decisive Wimbledon beckons

The cheers of the admiring crowd who bade Rafael Nadal farewell at the Gare du Nord in Paris were probably still ringing in his ears as the Spaniard prepared to take his first tentative steps on grass last night. Less than 24 hours after winning his fifth French Open title Nadal boarded a Eurostar train for London, where he is playing this week in the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club.

The new world No 1 practised for 20 minutes in the pouring rain. By the time he arrived at Queen's the groundsman had already dismantled the net, imagining that nobody would want to use the court in such conditions, but Nadal said he was still keen to practise. He will partner Marc Lopez in his opening doubles today and meets Brazil's Marcos Daniel tomorrow in his first singles match.

The turnaround between the clay and grass seasons barely gives the leading players time to change to the appropriate footwear. Wimbledon starts just 15 days after the French Open, which means the top men, who generally prefer not to play in the week before a Grand Slam tournament, have only one chance to compete on grass before travelling to the All England Club.

Roger Federer is playing this week in Halle, Germany, where he usually warms up for Wimbledon, while the three other members of the world's top four are at Queen's. Andy Murray plays his opening singles this afternoon against Spain's Ivan Navarro, while Novak Djokovic's first opponent will be the Italian Paolo Lorenzi.

Two years ago, Nadal completed a French Open-Wimbledon double – a feat that Federer matched 12 months later – but the Spaniard missed last summer's grass-court season because of problems with his knees. He is looking forward to returning to Queen's, where he won his first title on grass in 2008. "I always love Queen's," Nadal said. "It's a different tournament because you're playing at a club. That makes [it] very special."

Three Britons were in singles action at Queen's yesterday. Jamie Baker was outclassed by Uzbekistan's Denis Istomin, the world No 72, who won 6-1, 6-4, while James Ward went down 6-3, 7-5 to Robby Ginepri, the world No 70. Alex Bogdanovic was leading Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov 6-4, 3-6, 2-1 when rain ended play for the day.

The major women's event before Wimbledon is next week's Aegon International at Eastbourne, but Maria Sharapova is playing this week at the Aegon Classic at Edgbaston, where she usually warms up for Wimbledon.

Among a strong British contingent at Edgbaston, Katie O'Brien, Mel South, Naomi Broady and Heather Watson were all beaten yesterday. However, 16-year-old Laura Robson, the world No 258, recorded her first victory on the main women's tour as Switzerland's Stefanie Voegele, the world No 78, retired with a back injury when trailing 6-4, 0-1. Robson, who now faces Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer, also beat two higher-ranked players in qualifying, the Russians Nina Bratchikova (No 145) and Vitalia Diatchenko (No 241).

"I wasn't really surprised to go through," Robson said. "I've been playing well in practice and I was pleased that my serve worked well. Even though she could read my serve it didn't make too much difference."

There was further good news for Robson when Wimbledon handed its 2008 junior champion a wild card for the second year in succession. O'Brien, South and Watson also received wild cards, while Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong go into the main draw thanks to their ranking.

Baker was the only Briton among five men handed wild cards. Three more have yet to be awarded, but as yet there is nothing for Bogdanovic, the British No 2. Bogdanovic has received wild cards on eight previous occasions and lost in the first round every time.

The Lawn Tennis Association recommends that Wimbledon wild cards are awarded only to Britons in the world's top 250 or to young players who are regarded as outstanding prospects. Bogdanovic is the world No 166, while Robson, Watson (No 346) and Baker (No 254) are all outside the top 250. However, Robson and Watson are teenagers of great promise, while Baker has worked hard to revive his career after illness and injury problems.

Blades of glory? The battle for supremacy in the grass season

Rafael Nadal

Age 24, world No 1

Lost to Federer in Wimbledon finals of 2006 and 2007 but beat the Swiss in 2008 final in one of greatest matches ever. Missed last summer's grass-court season but comes to Britain on back of a perfect clay campaign after winning titles in Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and Paris.

Roger Federer

Age 28, world No 2

Won Wimbledon for sixth time last summer, thereby beating Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Only Wimbledon loss since 2002 was against Nadal in 2008. Quarter-final exit from French Open last week will have given him more time to prepare than usual.

Novak Djokovic

Age 23, world No 3

Reached Wimbledon semi-finals in 2007 but went out in second round and quarter-finals in subsequent years. Won Australian Open in 2008 but has not reached a Grand Slam final since. At home on the baseline, he is not as well-equipped to play on grass as his main rivals.

Andy Murray

Age 23, world No 4

Proved his grass-court credentials when he became first Briton to win at Queen's Club for 71 years last summer. Went on to reach Wimbledon semi-finals before losing to Andy Roddick. Has gone one round further with every visit to All England Club.

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