Top seeds making quick work of opponents

WIMBLEDON, England -- Justine Henin-Hardenne was serving for the first set against Anna Chakvetadze on Friday, hurtling toward another sub-30-minute frame, when chair umpire Roland Herfel interjected, "Stop! Stop! Stop!"

A ball girl, feeling the extreme heat of the day, had swooned on the baseline. It took several minutes to hydrate her and administer medical attention.

It was the only thing that effectively slowed Henin-Hardenne. Chakvetadze is a formidable player seeded No. 30 and ranked No. 34 in the world. Yet Henin-Hardenne swept her aside, 6-2, 6-3, in a tidy 66 minutes.

For the record, Henin-Hardenne is 19-0 in Grand Slam third-round matches, a tribute to her focus and resolve -- and the precipitous plunge in talent past the top handful of players.

There is almost always an air of predictability in the early rounds of a Grand Slam, particularly on the women's side. The top seeds play against qualifiers and players with rankings 100 places below their own. But this year at Wimbledon, the disparity has been enormous.

No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo, No. 2 Kim Clijsters, No. 3 Henin-Hardenne and No. 4 Maria Sharapova have positively throttled the opposition, failing to lose a set in their collective first 10 matches -- 10 because Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters are already through to the fourth round.

"Here in Wimbledon, it looks like this year it's a bit better for the top seeds in the first week, so it's good," Henin-Hardenne said. "We can see there is a lot of concurrence. It's great to see the top players in the second week."

If you are Henin-Hardenne, anyway.

In their first-round matches, the top four seeds won in a total elapsed time of 3 hours and 55 minutes. By comparison, the first-round match between Stefano Galvani and Alexander Waske, won by Galvani 16-14 in the fifth set, consumed 4 hours and 57 minutes. Two other first-round men's matches were decided by an 11-9 ultimate set.

Through 10 matches, the average time of the top four's matches, including Clijsters' walkover, is just over 55 minutes. The depth in women's tennis might have improved, but the gap between the elite players and the rest of the field seems to be widening.

Mauresmo and Sharapova, who will play their third-round matches Saturday, both lost only six games in their first four sets.

With equal pay for women the hot-button topic at Wimbledon this fortnight, the blowouts come at an awkward time. And it is exacerbated by some wild and rollicking men's matches. No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal lost the first two sets of his second-round match before rallying to win; No. 5 seed Ivan Ljubicic went the distance in his first-round match; and former champion Lleyton Hewitt was extended to five sets by Hyung-Taik Lee in a match that ran 3 hours and 56 minutes.

Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst and winner of 21 singles titles, isn't buying it.

"Women are held to a different standard," Shriver said. "When those blowouts come in the early rounds, the critics come down on them. If we get a few more, the critics will jump -- especially in this year when everyone is talking about equal prize money.

"But that's not the point. We don't punch a clock; we don't get paid by the game or set. When you have the same job, then anything less than equality is just wrong."

Shriver, who won five doubles titles in six years here (1981-86) with Martina Navratilova, makes a persuasive counterargument.

"Justine Henin-Hardenne lost here in the first round last year," Shriver said. "Which side is more in doubt this year, women or men? The most predictable thing in tennis is Roger Federer on grass. Is anybody complaining about his quick matches? It's like that with Justine, too. When she plays well, it's beautiful to watch.

"Stop picking on the women."

Said Henin-Hardenne, "We saw Grand Slams recently where it was tough for the top seeds to have easy matches in the first week. I think it has changed a little bit in the last few years. It was probably much more easier in the past than now.

"I don't know what people prefer, if it's to see surprises or if it's to see all the favorites. It depends on the person."

Put Henin-Hardenne and fellow Belgian Clijsters in the pro-seed category.

Clijsters had to wait the better part of the day to get onto Court 2 for her match with Jie Zheng because Radek Stepanek needed 4 hours and 2 minutes to complete his victory over Juan Carlos Ferrero in a five-set match that ended 11-9.

Then Clijsters came out and, among the advancing shadows, eliminated Zheng 6-3, 6-2. It took all of 71 minutes.

"She's a tough player," Clijsters said. "She's a counterpuncher, so I needed to move her from side to side. I felt I played a good match."

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.