LONDON, June 24 (Reuters) - Seven-times champion Roger Federer is only fourth favourite to win Wimbledon this year but the Swiss maestro still topped the bill as the All England Club opened its gates for a two-week feast of tennis on Monday.
Federer, home favourite Andy Murray and French Open champion Rafa Nadal were all scheduled to begin their campaigns on a cool, grey day in south west London while Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were the leading ladies in action.
The annual stampede to join the queues was already under way at the crack of dawn with latecomers already being advised to turn around and go home at local railway stations.
With dry conditions forecast for the first of 13 days, those lucky enough to hold showcourt tickets were set to be royally entertained with defending champion Federer opening play on Centre Court against Romania's Victor Hanescu.
Third seed Federer, rated at 8-1 by some bookmakers to hold on to his crown and become the first man to win Wimbledon eight times, sharpened his grasscourt skills by winning the Halle title in the build-up to the championships.
"It's a special moment," Federer said of striding out on to the lush green grass on Centre Court.
"It doesn't really change. You feel very unique because you are the one opening the court."
Most of the chatter in the queues and around the flower-lined walkways was about Murray's chances of becoming the first British man to win the men's singles since Fred Perry in 1936.
His every footstep will be analysed as he begins his challenge against Germany's Benjamin Becker who he beat on his way to winning the Queen's Club title earlier this month.
Federer, who reduced Murray to tears in last year's final, tipped the Scot, who he could face in the semi-final this time, as the pre-tournament favourite.
"He seems the most natural on this surface of the other guys," Federer said. "To me Andy sort of stands out a little bit over the others."
Nadal, whose fifth seeding has skewed the draw and loaded the bottom half with quality, begins against Belgium's Steve Darcis having never lost in the first round of a slam.
Russia's Sharapova has ben involved in a pre-tournament spat with defending champion Serena Williams over off court matters but will be fully focused as usual when she takes on first round opponent Kristina Mladenovic of France. (Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ken Ferris)