WIMBLEDON, England - Roger Federer has long been appreciated at the tennis championships here for his completeness as a player, for possessing some of the best technical skills ever to grace the sport's premier stage.
This year, it seems, he's got something else going for him: support from the fans.
In winning his opening match yesterday against a tenacious but ultimately overmatched Paul-Henri Mathieu, the cheers from Centre Court made it clear that Federer is the favorite not only of the bookies, but also of the fans.
"Today was definitely a nice welcome," he said after his 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory.
"I warmed up this morning at 11," he said. "Everybody just came to the gates, into the grounds, and everyone you met was, 'Good luck, good luck, good luck.' I was really surprised how ... they cheered for me."
He'll need all the help he can get as he tries to become the first men's player since the 1930s to win three straight Wimbledon titles.
Although Federer remains the tournament favorite, No. 3-seeded Lleyton Hewitt and No. 5 Marat Safin both played well yesterday and remain formidable obstacles to the final.
Hewitt beat Christophe Rochus, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1, and Safin, twice a first-round loser at Wimbledon, beat Paradorn Srichaphan, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4.
On the women's side, if there was one surprise, it came from top-ranked Lindsay Davenport.
As expected, she defeated Alina Jidkova, 6-0, 6-2, but the shocker was just how flawlessly Davenport played, showing she may be the biggest threat to defending champion Maria Sharapova, whose first-round match is scheduled for today.
Yesterday, though, was Federer's day.
In keeping with Wimbledon tradition, last year's men's champion stepped on Centre Court precisely at 1 p.m., with temperatures in the lower 80s after a morning downpour.
The champion certainly was not without support in past years. The consummate sportsman on and off the court, Federer had been the object of generosity from Wimbledon fans, particularly when he picked up his first two tournament championships. But it seemed the fans were acknowledging his technical skills rather than showing the kind of affection bestowed on Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras.
Yesterday was different.
The second he walked on court, the normally reserved Wimbledon crowd showered him with cheers, and applause rained even when he won points that weren't particularly artful.
"I really, definitely, enjoyed that," he said.
His play was far from his best, which only emphasized how dominant he has become on grass.
He pounded 18 aces as he extended his grass-court winning streak to 30 matches, including 15 at Wimbledon. He had only 15 unforced errors against Mathieu, a plucky Frenchman who showed little awareness that he was supposed to be a sacrificial lamb.
With Agassi out of the tournament with an injured back and with men's tennis in short supply of strong personalities, the Wimbledon fans seem to have found their man. After Federer survived that peculiar form of Round 1 pressure, the fans stood and cheered him again as he waved to them and walked off the court.
"It was a good start," Federer said. "I definitely feel sort of relieved after this start and look forward to the rest. You're into the tournament, you've seen the fans and you don't have to leave right away. So that's nice."
The highest seeded men's player to fall was No. 16 Mariano Puerta, the French Open runner-up two weeks ago, who lost to Lars Burgsmuller, 6-1, 6-1, 6-4.
No. 10 Patty Schnyder became the first women's seeded player to be eliminated, being upset by Antonella Serra Zanetti, 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-3.
Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 French Open champion, was on the verge of becoming the first major upset of the tournament, but she rallied to beat 18-year-old qualifier Katerina Bohmova, 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-4.