London: Being a defending champion at Wimbledon has its perks none bigger than the honour of playing the opening match on the freshly manicured lawn of Centre Court.
Despite slipping on the slick grass and falling behind early in the first set, Novak Djokovic quickly gained his footing and played the commanding tennis that took him to his first Wimbledon title and vaulted him to the No. 1 ranking that he still holds.
Last year, after beating Rafael Nadal in the final, Djokovic grabbed some blades of grass and stuffed them into his mouth. This time, he celebrated quietly after defeating another Spaniard, dropping just seven games in a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 win on Monday over former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.
"It`s a very unique feeling," Djokovic said of stepping onto the sport`s most famous stage at 1 p.m. as reigning champ. "I think that`s the first time I experienced that in my career. I think this is the only tournament that actually allows you to have information when you`re playing 12 months in advance."
Following his loss to Nadal in the French Open final two weeks ago that ended the Serb`s 27-match winning streak at Grand Slams, Djokovic came to Wimbledon without any grass-court preparation. He got off to a shaky start and lost serve to fall behind 2-1, but broke right back and took complete command.
"The grass was untouched," he said. "It was soft, so smooth. It was great to play in."
The atmosphere, too, was special when he came onto the court.
"It is quieter than the other center courts of the other Grand Slams," Djokovic said. "But you feel that tradition and the history of tennis, of sport, in this tournament, especially Centre Court. So many legends have won the trophies here, the trophies that made them big tennis stars."
While Djokovic paid tribute to the tradition, he also pulled off a very untraditional bit of gimmickry: taking a golf club with him onto the court.
As part of an inside joke with a sponsor, he pulled a club out of his racket bag and put it on the sideline when he arrived to face Ferrero.
"It was a little funny thing," said Djokovic, whose racket maker gave him a bag that has posts to make it stand like a golf bag. "Being creative, that`s all. But fans corrected me right away. They said, `This is not a golf course.` I said, `OK.`"
Djokovic has won four of the past six Grand Slam tournaments, breaking up what had been the two-man dominance of Nadal and Roger Federer. The three players have combined to win 28 of the past 29 major titles.
"There is not anymore advantages in ... my favour, Rafa`s, Roger`s, whenever we are playing each other on any surface," Djokovic said. "We`re all kind of equal, in a way. I think we have equal, 50-50, chances to win."
Day 1 passed off without a single rain delay, a relief after one of the wettest Junes on record in Britain.
Other winners included six-time champion Federer, top-seeded Maria Sharapova, four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters and No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska.
Five-time champion Venus Williams lost and won`t be playing in the second round at Wimbledon for the first time since her debut at the All England Club in 1997.
The highest seeded player to fall was No. 6 Tomas Berdych, the 2010 runner-up who lost 7-6 (5) 7-6 (4) 7-6 (4) to 87th-ranked Ernests Gulbis of Latvia.
John Isner, the 11th-seeded American, squandered a match point in the fourth set and was upset in five by Alejandro Falla of Colombia, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (7), 7-5. The result ruled out a second-round contest between Isner and Nicolas Mahut — who played the longest match in tennis history here two years ago, and met again in the first round last year.
While Djokovic did the Centre Court honours on Monday, it will be defending women`s champ Petra Kvitova`s turn on Tuesday, opening against Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan.
Second-seeded Nadal was scheduled up next against Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil, followed by No. 4 Andy Murray against former top-10 player Nikolay Davydenko. On Court 1, fifth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was paired against 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt, who has slipped to 202nd in the rankings and needed a wild card to enter Wimbledon this year.
A day after her sister was eliminated on Court 2, four-time champion and sixth-seeded Serena Williams was due to play on the same court against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. Williams openly wondered last year why the sisters were put on Court 2 instead of Centre Court.
Venus Williams was eliminated 6-1, 6-3 by Elena Vesnina of Russia, the latest setback in her return to tennis after being diagnosed with Sjogren`s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can cause fatigue and joint pain.
Williams, who has fallen to 58th in the rankings, lost the first five games to the 79th-ranked Russian and, although she picked up her game and fought hard, was never able to turn the match around. Afterwards, she insisted she still has the motivation to return to the top of her game.
"I feel like I`m a great player," Williams said. "I am a great player. Unfortunately I have to deal with circumstances that people don`t have to deal with normally in a sport, but I can`t be discouraged by that. I`m up for challenges. I have great tennis in me. I just need the opportunity."
The next chance will be the Olympic tournament, which will be played at Wimbledon three weeks after the end of the championships. Venus, who won gold in women`s singles and doubles at the 2000 Olympics and bronze in doubles in Beijing four years ago, hopes to play both events again at the London Games.
"At the Olympics, you`ll see me here," she said. "I`m planning on it."
BDST: 1952 HRS, June 26, 2012
Chanchal Ghosh, Newsroom Editor
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