No matter how great the mismatch, the first round of a Grand Slam represents an enormous psychological hurdle. And top-ranked Roger Federer was relieved to get past his Wimbledon opener Monday, defeating little-known Paul-Henri Mathieu of France, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
"Very important first step," said Federer, who is seeking to become the eighth man in history -- and only the third in the Open era -- to win three consecutive Wimbledon titles. Pete Sampras did so twice, hoisting its coveted trophy from 1993 to 1995 and again from 1997 to 2000. Sweden's Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon five years in a row, from 1976 to 1980.
Federer opened his match cautiously, hugging the baseline until sure of his footing and rhythm. Then he ratcheted up his aggressiveness, finishing with 18 aces and 33 winners. Federer is particularly mindful of the perils of first-round matches at important tournaments, having lost to Mario Ancic in a first-round Wimbledon match in 2002.
The top seeds who played in the men's draw Monday also sailed through without trouble.
Australia's Lleyton Hewitt breezed past Christophe Rochus of Belgium, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. It marked Hewitt's first Grand Slam after missing three months with broken ribs suffered in a fall on his stairs at home. Like Federer, Hewitt was relieved by the result despite its apparent ease.
"The first round of a Grand Slam is tough," Hewitt said. "It's a match you really want to get under your belt -- go out there and get through it as quickly as possible."
Hewitt declined to comment on tournament officials' decision to seed him third, below Andy Roddick, despite the fact that he's ranked second in the world. "I'm not going to talk about it right here," he said. "There's no point in dwelling on it."
Pressed a bit further, Hewitt cut off his questioner. "Mate," he said, "I'm not going to talk about it."
Marat Safin, the mercurial Russian, also wrapped up his opener in three sets, rolling past Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. Safin, the fifth seed and defending Australian Open champion, attributed his ease to newfound confidence -- a quality he views the way most people regard a set of car keys.
"Now I have the confidence," Safin said. "I need to hold it for a long time, as long as I can. Because now it looks like I found my game, I found my confidence that I was missing for the past six months. Finally I have it. I'll try not to lose it again."
Also advancing Monday was American Taylor Dent, who needed five sets, three tiebreakers and 3 hours 22 minutes to get past Dick Norman of Belgium, 7-6 (6-4), 7-6 (6-4), 4-6, 6-7 (9-7), 6-1.
Roddick opens play Tuesday against Jiri Vanek of the Czech Republic.