Nearly 20 years after narrowly missing the chance to break a long-lasting curse, retired top-ranked player Lleyton Hewitt appeared to embody the quintessential Australian at Melbourne Park on Wednesday.
The captain of the Davis Cup appears to be physically capable of leading from the baseline on Rod Laver Arena, but he will be joining a group of esteemed Australian athletes in January as he is inducted into the Tennis Australia Hall of Fame. The news of Hewitt’s induction was a notable highlight among the various announcements and predictions made at the launch of the 2024 Australian Open.
The South Australian was a record breaker as the youngest man ever to hold the No 1 spot as a 20-year-old in 2001, a crown that is now held by Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz. The pace of his induction alongside idols including Tony Roche and John Newcombe must be another – it is only three years since Hewitt featured in the Australian Open doubles.
Hewitt’s attempt to break the streak of local champions not winning since 1976 was halted by Marat Safin in the 2005 Australian Open final, so there is no merit in questioning his skills. However, Todd Woodbridge, another Australian, did have a concern about the design of the bust that will be displayed in Garden Square at Melbourne Park. He wondered if the bust of the Wimbledon champion would feature a backwards-facing cap.
Hewitt stated that he doubts anyone else will be wearing their cap backwards like him. He then questioned if Pat Cash is currently wearing his headband.
Just to clarify, he agrees. Despite the distractions, there was a lot of discussion about the upcoming Australian Open in January. Craig Tiley, the tournament director for the Australian Open and also the chief executive of Tennis Australia, has been promoting the event and announcing that Rafael Nadal will be making a comeback to Melbourne. Pictures of Nadal practicing on the court have been shared in the past two weeks, but the renowned Spanish player has been out of action since January due to a severe foot injury.
A section called “The Return of Champions” announced the comeback of past winners Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber, and Caroline Wozniacki. Regarding Nick Kyrgios, the 2022 Wimbledon runner-up who has been inactive, Tiley stated that he is eager to come back.
Tiley stated that the main concern is his health. He suffered a serious injury, which could potentially end his career like it has for other athletes. However, he is currently recovering and Tiley anticipates him to participate and bring us the desired entertainment.
The warning about physical fitness must also be considered for the four previous title holders, despite Tiley’s positive outlook. Osaka has shared videos of her training as she aims to make a comeback after becoming a mother, while Kerber is also making a return to the court after giving birth earlier this year. Wozniacki, the 2019 winner, has at least resumed playing, reaching the round of 16 at the US Open just a month ago, marking an impressive return after a hiatus of over three years.
Tiley was presented with various topics, such as the enlarged Australian Open, ticket prices, soft tennis balls, a festive court, and the extreme heat policy. Despite the recent attention, he could not promise that the change to a Sunday start, extending the tournament to 15 days, would prevent late finishes.
He advised not to delay the start of the night session. By having an additional day and spacing out the initial rounds, it will definitely assist, but he cannot guarantee it.
One additional day may increase profits, which is important for a company that experienced significant financial losses from hosting two Australian Opens during the pandemic. The major stadium courts will now have two day matches instead of three, starting at noon. However, ticket prices for those courts may go up due to a “dynamic pricing policy”. Despite having one less match on the stadium courts each day, Tiley argued that this does not mean less entertainment for ticket holders as they now have a better opportunity to watch matches elsewhere.
Tennis players have expressed frustration over the varying types of tennis balls used at tournaments around the world, particularly the 2023 AO tournament ball which received harsh criticism for its quality. According to Tiley, efforts are being made to improve the ball and this will be an ongoing process due to the challenging conditions. However, he believes that by 2024, they will have made significant progress in this regard.
In recent years, the Open has faced numerous challenges, such as bushfires, pandemics, culture wars, and match-fixing scandals. The upcoming 2024 edition is only a few months away. Tiley, who is typically optimistic, will need to be as adaptable as Hewitt was in his prime to handle these new obstacles.