Almost two decades after narrowly missing out on ending a lasting curse, former world number one Lleyton Hewitt looked every bit the tanned Australian at Melbourne Park on Wednesday.
The Davis Cup captain still appears fit enough to dominate the baseline at Rod Laver Arena but will instead join a ring of Australian greats in immortality next January. The revelation that Hewitt will be inducted into the Tennis Australia Hall of Fame came as a trump card amid a series of announcements and predictions at the start of the 2024 Australian Open.
The South Australian was a record breaker, having become the youngest man ever to hold the top spot as a 20-year-old in 2001, a crown now held by Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz. The pace of his introduction alongside idols such as Tony Roche and John Newcombe must be different – it has only been three years since Hewitt featured in the Australian Open doubles.
There is no question of merit for Hewitt, as Marat Safin ended his bid to end his 1976 local champion drought in a memorable 2005 Australian Open final. But fellow tanned Australian Todd Woodbridge had a question about the style of the bust, which is to be installed in the big ring at Garden Square in Melbourne Park. Would the Wimbledon champion’s bust grace a backwards cap?
“I don’t think there will be another one out there with the cap on backwards,” Hewitt said. “I don’t know. Is Cashy (Pat Cash) wearing his headband?”
For the record, he does. Aside from the busts, there was plenty of commentary about next January’s Open. Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley, who also serves as chief executive of Tennis Australia, was on his way to promotion and announced that Rafael Nadal would be returning to Melbourne. Photos of Nadal training on court have been circulating over the past two weeks, but the Spanish star has not played since January due to a serious foot problem.
A feature titled “The Comeback Queens” announced that former champions Naomi Osaka, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki would also be back in action. As for Nick Kyrgios, the 2022 Wimbledon finalist who has barely played since? Tiley said he is motivated to return.
“It’s just a question of his health,” Tiley said. “He had a serious injury and in many cases it can be a career-ending injury for a lot of athletes, so he’s… still getting over that, but I fully expect him to be here and ready to play is.” and give us the entertainment we want.”
The fitness caveat must also be applied to the four former champions, despite Tiley’s optimism. Osaka has posted footage of herself practicing as she attempts to return to motherhood, while Kerber is also making a comeback after giving birth earlier this year. Wozniacki, the 2019 champion, is at least playing again after reaching the round of 16 of the US Open a month ago in an excellent return after a break of more than three years.
An expansion of the Australian Open, ticket prices, fluffy tennis balls, a party court and extreme heat policy were among the issues brought to Tiley. He couldn’t guarantee that the switch to a Sunday start, making the tournament a 15-day event, would result in late placings despite the huge publicity a week ago.
“The key is not to start the night session too late. So having an extra day and spreading out the first few rounds will certainly help, but I can’t guarantee it,” he said.
An extra day will boost sales, a necessity for an organization whose finances have taken a major hit due to the huge cost of staging two Australian Opens during the pandemic. The stadium’s main pitches will now host games over two days instead of three, with games starting at lunchtime. However, tickets for these stadiums may increase due to a “dynamic pricing policy”. But Tiley disputed that less was more, despite one fewer game being played on stadium grounds each day, saying ticket holders now had a greater chance of seeing games elsewhere.
The different tennis balls used week after week around the world have raised the ire of tennis players, some of whom voiced harsh criticism about the quality of the 2023 AO tournament ball. “We worked on the ball again and will continue to work on the ball,” said Tiley. “But this is a journey that will forever remain a challenge due to the conditions, but I think we are on track for 2024.”
From bushfires to pandemics, culture wars to match-fixing bombshells, recent openings have seen more than the usual level of drama. The 2024 edition is now less than 100 days away. Despite his annual optimism, Tiley will be cautious about meeting new challenges as nimbly as Hewitt did in his prime.