Hewitt fires local hope for Australian Open

Sydney, Jan 7: Lleyton Hewitt’s unlikely straight sets victory over long-time adversary Roger Federer in the Brisbane International final Sunday is set to push crowds to record capacity as local anticipation grows for the forthcoming Australian Open.

The first Grand Slam event of 2014, to be held Jan 13-26, just got a whole lot bigger here with the joyous disbelief generated around Australia by Hewitt’s first ATP title on home soil in almost a decade, reports Xinhua.

As the world’s tennis stars descend on Melbourne for a share in the record Australian $33 million prize money, the spotlight has been stolen by one of tennis’ little battlers. With Hewitt turning 33 next month, local hopes were slim on the ground in a nation that loves the underdog.

Certainly the Australian Open enjoys that status with the 2013 title easily the biggest sporting event in the southern hemisphere with a record 684,457 visitors, 548 players, more than 720 media persons from 40 different countries and 380 ball boys and girls.

The Aussie Open’s director Craig Tiley was reluctant to put the jinx on the most anticipated tournament but conceded record-breaking crowds were on the cards.

“Whether we break any records or not, tends to depend on the conditions each day. But I’m extremely pleased with the position we are in a week out from the event.”

Foreign stars have wasted no time hitting Melbourne Park with former American winner Serena Williams, Russian Maria Sharapova and British hope Andy Murray on court Monday.

Rafael Nadal, whose inspirational comeback from injury last year has so far netted him nine titles including two Grand Slams, remains the title’s major threat, although defending champion Novak Djokovic, three-time finalist Andy Murray and a wounded Federer will be among the crowd favourites behind Hewitt and Bernard Tomic.

Serena is expected to continue her seemingly effortless domination among the ladies while Maria and defending champion Victoria Azarenka have both enjoyed success in Melbourne.

China’s indomitable Li Na is a huge favourite with the Aussie crowds and the ever enthusiastic support she brings from both local and visiting Chinese fans.

Retired ace Pete Sampras will be returning to Melbourne 20 years after winning the first of his two Australian Open men’s singles titles while three-time Australian Open champion Mats Wilander, Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic and French Open victor turned pop-star Yannick Noah have all confirmed for one of the tour’s biggest events.

Melbourne will also welcome back 18-time Grand Slam winner Martina Navratilova for the legends competition.

With less than two weeks before a tennis ball is hit in anger, the Victorian state capital has reported a steady growth in international visitors while pre-sales for tickets are at an all-time high.

A city renowned for eye-catching events, Melbourne and Melbournians revel in their summer sporting soirees.

IANS