Venus Williams hurdled the first obstacle between her and a third successive singles title without undue difficulty yesterday, while top seed Dinara Safina had a trickier time overcoming the doughty Lourdes Dominguez Lino, from Spain, to join the older Williams sister in the second round.
Williams won 6-3, 6-2, but 19-year-old Stefanie Voegele from Switzerland, making her first appearance in the main draw, gave her a sterner workout than the scoreline suggests. Still, a runaround in the glorious Centre Court sunshine was just what the No 3 seed required as the quest began for a sixth singles title. The Rolex scoreboard said "challenges remaining" and in Wimbledon terms there are few remaining challenges for Williams. On Centre Court she stands in the shadow of only two women, and a sixth title would propel her into overtaking range of one of them, Steffi Graf, who lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish here on seven occasions, second only to nine-times champion Martina Navratilova. Williams would also become the first woman since Graf, in 1993, to win in three consecutive years. Navratilova won six times on the trot, but even the ever-optimistic Williams, who later said that she considers Wimbledon to be a place of "pure joy", probably thinks that record unassailable.
There were myriad differences between her and her young opponent yesterday, not least 10 years of experience, about the same number of centimetres, and more than $22.5m (£13.8m) in prize money. Yet Voegele never seemed remotely over-awed by her Centre Court debut, and at times showed similar composure to her illustrious compatriot, Federer R.
When Williams broke Voegele's second service game to lead 2-1, the writing seemed to be on the wall in fluorescent pink, yet Voegele, a slip of a thing, had the audacity to break straight back. Where the superiority of Williams really told, despite surrendering that early break, was on serve. At its best her serve is an awesome weapon, and at times she deployed it magnificently. Nor is it just a blunderbuss; it can also be a well-aimed Beretta. She won the fifth game of the second set easily to love, her four unreturnable serves measuring 99mph, 87mph, 117mph and 112mph, and on her first serve overall she won 82 per cent of points played, which even against a player ranked 97 in the world is not too shabby. On Monday, Serena Williams described her sibling as the best grass-court player of their generation, and even though Venus did not really need her full repertoire yesterday, nobody in the sun-kissed crowd would have disagreed with the assessment.
Why she has never transferred her supremacy to the hard-court game, failing to win both the French Open and the Australian Open, is a conundrum to which she has no answer. "But if you pick one Slam to win, it's got to be this one," she said afterwards. Even her father and coach, the irrepressible Richard, defers to the five-times champion at Wimbledon. Prior to all other tournaments he decides which shots she needs to work on in practice, but in south-west London he lets her make the decisions. And this time, she has been concentrating on her volleys. "I definitely want to get to the net and when I get up there, execute," she said, with a dazzling smile rarely associated with executioners.
If grass is to Williams what water is to fish, to Safina it is what fish are to bicycles. The Russian has reached the last two Grand Slam finals, but it will be something of a shock if she gets that far here. She might be currently ranked the best player in the world, and enjoy top seeding, but Safina has never made it beyond the third round at Wimbledon.
Still, at least she didn't exit in the first round, though there were moments in the first set when it seemed distinctly possible that she might end up sharing a dubious distinction with Graf in 1994, and Martina Hingis in 1999 and 2001, the only three times in the Open era that top seeds in the women's draw have lost their opening matches.
Safina's opponent, Dominguez Lino, played splendidly, trading baseline exocets but also throwing in some exquisitely deft drop shots. Nor was she scared to lob the strapping Muscovite, who stands 6ft 1in in her stockinged feet and at the net must look scarier than the Lubyanka. In the end, however, Safina's extra class and power prevailed. She won 7-5, 6-3 in an hour and 41 minutes.
Jelena Jankovic overcame blisters and a broken toenail to reach the second round. The Serbian edged past German Julia Görges after requiring medical assistance on her foot at the end of the opening set. Then she had to be at her very best to withstand a fightback from Görges who raced into a 5-2 lead in the second set. But Jankovic, who has dropped from world No 1 to sixth in the rankings this year, played through the pain to get back on level terms and eventually win the match 6-4, 7-6.