Five-time champion Venus Williams loses in the first round

They take their traditions rather seriously here at Wimbledon.

So while the outside courts receive their players earlier in the day, it isn’t until 1 p.m. on Monday when the defending men’s singles champion walks onto Centre Court that the tournament properly begins.

As far as starts to title defences go, Novak Djokovic could have had it easier — a wildcard (unless held by Goran Ivanisevic), a lucky loser, a journeyman qualifier even. Instead the top seed had to play a former World No.1 and Roland Garros champion who knew his way well enough around a grass-court to twice make the quarterfinals here.

Only once in the Open Era has the defending champion been evicted on the first day, Lleyton Hewitt suffering at the hands of Ivo Karlovic in 2003. But given the treachery of grass — it’s deucedly difficult to start on and get a rhythm going — nerves are only normal. Anxiety did indeed visit Djokovic. He mastered it, however, to defeat Juan-Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 in an hour and 38 minutes and advance to the second round in the 2012 Championships.

Djokovic — wide smile on lips, modest hand raised in acknowledgement — arrived on a warm afternoon to a reception that threatened the limits of polite enthusiasm. He began with a solid serve and leant into the anaemic return to drive it, two-handed, down the line.

But matters soon turned complicated. Up 30-0 in the third game, Djokovic fluffed an overhead and drew gasps from the crowd. “You don’t see that often,” they hissed. A point later, they were in shock: crouching on a mid-court ball, noticing that Ferrero had committed to a point of no-return, Djokovic sprayed a forehand overlong.

Hitting back

Ferrero took the game with his fourth breakpoint, rolling a shallow-angled, inside-out forehand to wrong-foot the Serb. Djokovic’s response was immediate, its ruthlessness befitting a champion. Raising his play slightly, flattening his stroke so could hit through the court more, he broke right back.

But Ferrero was refusing to relent. Once a rally got started, the Spaniard was giving as good as he got, knowing perhaps that he had no other choice. The game might have passed him by, but he hadn’t appeared to have received the memo until the second set.

Two things gave Djokovic a decisive edge: Ferrero hadn’t the heft of serve to hurt him; and when the 32-year-old did manage a tricky serve, Djokovic’s exceptional returning ensured he wasn’t far from a break. With that easy elasticity of his, the World No.1 blocked and cold-cocked returns that turned the point at once.

Having won the first set and broken early in the second, Djokovic had one final test: break points in the eighth game. A mix of quite astonishing defence — the backhand get at 15-40 was otherworldly — and just enough solidity helped him hold for 5-3. To no one’s surprise, Ferrero’s resistance vanished in the third set.

A little after Djokovic’s victory came Wimbledon’s first big casualty. Venus Williams, a five-time singles champion here and the finest women’s grass-court player of the last decade, lost 1-6, 3-6 to Russia’s Elena Vesnina in a first-round match.

Venus, who revealed late last year that she had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that causes debilitating joint pain and fatigue, refused to give tennis up.

“There's no way just because I have a hard time the first five or six freakin’ tournaments back,” she said. “A lot of people wouldn't even have the opportunity to even come back, so I'm grateful for this opportunity. With each day that passes, that means I have another chance. If the sun comes up, I have a chance.

“So I have to make good on that chance, continue figuring out how to live my life and figure out how to play sport in this life.”

The results

First round: Men: Ryan Sweeting bt Potito Starace 6-2, 2-0 retired; 29-Julien Benneteau bt Gilles Muller 6-2, 7-5, 7-6(4); 18-Richard Gasquet bt Tobias Kamke 6-2, 6-2, 6-2; 17-Fernando Verdasco bt Jimmy Wang 7-6(3), 6-4, 7-5; Michael Russell bt Adrian Menendez-MacEiras 6-3, 6-1, 7-6(7); 26-Mikhail Youzhny bt Donald Young 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3; 1-Novak Djokovic bt Juan-Carlos Ferrero 6-3, 6-3, 6-1; 8-Janko Tipsarevic bt David Nalbandian 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-2; 28-Radek Stepanek bt Sergey Stakhovsky 6-1, 1-0 retired; Grega Zemlja bt Joshua Goodall 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-4; Reuben Bemelmans bt Carlos Berlocq 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-3, 7-6(7); Benjamin Becker bt James Blake 6-7(4), 7-5, 6-0, 6-4; 13-Gilles Simon bt Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-3, 5-4 retired; Fabio Fognini bt Michael Llodra 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.

Women: Anna Tatishvili bt Tamarine Tanasugarn 6-4, 6-2; Camila Giorgi bt 16-Flavia Pennetta 6-4, 6-3; 11-Na Li bt Ksenia Pervak 6-3, 6-1; 5-Samantha Stosur bt Carla Suarez Navarro 6-1, 6-3; 3-Agnieszka Radwanska bt Magdalena Rybarikova 6-3, 6-3; Sorana Cirstea bt Pauline Parmentier 6-4, 6-1; Ayumi Morita bt Jarmila Gajdosova 6-4, 6-3; 15-Sabine Lisicki bt Petra Martic 6-4, 6-2; Elena Vesnina bt Venus Williams 6-1, 6-3; Bojana Jovanovski bt Elenii Daniilidou 5-7, 6-3, 2-0 retired; Andrea Hlavackova bt Kai-Chen Chang 6-1, 6-2; Su-Wei Hsieh bt Virginie Razzano 6-2, 6-4; 1-Maria Sharapova bt Anastasia Rodionova 6-2, 6-3.

Keywords: Wimbledon 2012

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