Wimbledon Tournament Begins With a Rain Delay

In what hardly qualifies as an upset, Wimbledon began with a rain delay Monday.

This tournament tradition was renewed even though southern England has been in a drought. Rain moved in after two weeks of warm, mostly dry weather, making it the 11th consecutive year that Wimbledon has endured at least one interruption.

Play was delayed for 59 minutes at the start on the outer courts before a dry spell allowed about 30 minutes of tennis. Then came an even longer delay, forcing the postponement of 12 matches.

Weather aside, Wimbledon began with a different look. On-court officials, ball boys and ball girls wore smart new blue outfits by Ralph Lauren, and three-time defending champion Roger Federer took Centre Court in a stylish cream-colored blazer bearing his last name on the breast pocket.

He removed it before warming up, and took a 6-3, 1-2 lead over Richard Gasquet 6-3, 1-2 before the second band of showers hit.

Martina Hingis, playing at Wimbledon for the first time since 2001, won the first set against Olga Savchuk 6-2 before the match was suspended. Hingis, Wimbledon's youngest champion in the Open era when she won the title at 16 in 1997, began a career comeback in January after a three-year injury layoff.

In the crowded players' restaurant, French Open champion Rafael Nadal stood holding a tray of pasta, looking for a place to sit. James Blake, scheduled to play third on Court 1, sat with his mom while his brother played cards.

"We'll all be used to this by the end of the fortnight, I'm sure," Blake said.

Waiting to begin his 13th Wimbledon was Tim Henman, scheduled to play second on Court 1.

"I've had my share of rain delays over the years," Henman said. "It's just a question of being patient and making sure you're ready to go. It can clear up so quickly and 10, 15 minutes later, you've got to be out on court."

Fans sought refuge from the damp, chilly conditions under umbrellas and in souvenir shops, well accustomed to the routine. Precipitation has been particularly persistent at the All England Club in recent years, and the 2004 tournament was one of the wettest ever, with two days washed out and all but three days interrupted by showers.

Relief is on the way, at least on Centre Court: A retractable roof is scheduled to be ready in 2009.

On the eve of tennis' grandest event Sunday, Venus Williams walked the halls wearing a chic white sweat suit, braids reaching nearly to her waist and gold earrings the size of tennis balls. She tends to stand out — especially at Wimbledon.

For the second straight year, Williams begins the tournament with little success to draw on in recent months. A long layoff again raised questions about her health and motivation, and she has played only 14 matches since September.

But rustiness didn't end up being an issue a year ago, when she won Wimbledon for the third time, and she'll be among the favorites when she plays her opening match Tuesday — weather permitting — against fellow American Bethanie Mattek.

"It seems like my game goes to another level here," Williams said. "I love it. I think a lot of times, by the time this tournament comes around, I've gotten a few kinks out of my game. I always come into the tournament very positive. That's really crucial."

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Williams hasn't won a title since last year's Wimbledon, and she's seeded only sixth — strange for a player with a 34-3 record at the All England Club since 2000. She's the fourth choice of London bookmakers, behind 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne and U.S. Open winner Kim Clijsters.

Still, no one will be eager to face Williams, the winner of five Grand Slam titles.

"You can never count her out," Hingis said. "She showed she's still got some skills last year. She's definitely a dangerous player."

Also taking the court on the second day of the tournament Tuesday will be Andy Roddick, runner-up to Federer the past two years, and Andre Agassi, who will begin his final Wimbledon by facing Boris Pashanski. The 36-year-old Agassi announced Saturday he'll retire after the U.S. Open.

"He's a great champion," Williams said. "I admire that he has always done things his way despite what the establishment may have said how he should do it."