Australian Open 2024 promises big names to outshine past problems | Australian Open

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Almost two decades after falling narrowly shy of ending an enduring curse, former world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt looked every inch a bronzed Aussie at Melbourne Park on Wednesday.

The Davis Cup captain still looks fit enough to command the baseline on Rod Laver Arena but will instead join a ring of Australian greats in immortality next January. The revelation Hewitt will be inducted into the Tennis Australia Hall of Fame was an ace amid a series of announcements and prognostications at the 2024 Australian Open launch.

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.

There is no question of merit for Hewitt, whose bid to end a drought for local champions dating back to 1976 was ended by Marat Safin in a memorable 2005 Australian Open final. But fellow bronzed Australian Todd Woodbridge did have a query regarding the style of the bust that will be placed among the ring of greats circling Garden Square at Melbourne Park. Would the Wimbledon champion’s bust be adorned with a backwards-facing cap?

“I don’t think there will be another one out there with the cap on backwards,” Hewitt said. “I don’t know. Does Cashy [Pat Cash] have his headband on?”

For the record, he does. Busts aside, there was plenty of commentary regarding next January’’s Open. Australian Open tournament director, Craig Tiley, who doubles as Tennis Australia’s chief executive, was on the promotional trail declaring Rafael Nadal would return to Melbourne. Photographs of Nadal training on court have circulated over the past fortnight but the Spanish great has not played since January due to a serious foot problem.

A feature titled “The Comeback Queens” proclaimed 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 scarcely played since? Tiley said he is motivated to return.

Sam Stosur, Lleyton Hewitt and Todd Woodbridge speak at the Australian Open 2024 launch. Photograph: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

“It is just a matter of his health,” Tiley said. “He has had a significant injury and in many cases, with many athletes, it can be a career-ending injury, so he’s … still in the process of getting over that, but I fully expect him to be here and be ready to play and provide us with the entertainment we want.”

The caveat about fitness must be applied to the four former champions as well, despite Tiley’s optimism. Osaka has posted footage of herself practising as she bids to return after becoming a mother, while Kerber is also mounting a comeback after giving birth earlier this year. Wozniacki, the 2019 champion, has at least been back playing, having reached the round of 16 at the US Open a month ago in a superb return after more than three years off the circuit.

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An expanded Australian Open, ticketing prices, fluffy tennis balls, a party court and the extreme heat policy were among the subjects put towards Tiley. He could not guarantee the move to a Sunday start, which makes the tournament a 15-day event, would alter late finishes despite a blaze of publicity a week ago.

“The key is not to start the night session late, so by having an extra day and spreading out the first few rounds, that will certainly help it, but I can’t guarantee it,” he said.

An extra day will boost revenue, a necessity for an organisation whose finances took a big hit due to the enormous cost of running two Australian Opens during the pandemic. The main stadium courts now have two day matches instead of three, with play beginning at midday, but tickets for those stadiums may increase based on a “dynamic pricing policy”. But Tiley denied less is more despite one fewer match on the stadium courts each day, stating ticket holders now have a greater chance to watch matches elsewhere.

The differing tennis balls used week to week around the world have raised the ire of tennis players, some of whom were scathing of the quality of the 2023 AO tournament ball. “We have done some work on the ball again and we will continue to do some work on the ball,” Tiley said. “But that is a journey that will forever be a challenge because of the conditions, but I think we are in a good space for 2024.”

From bushfires to pandemics and culture wars to match-fixing bombshells, recent Opens have endured more than the usual share of drama. The 2024 edition is now less than 100 days away. Tiley, despite his annual optimism, will be wary of being as nimble on his feet as Hewitt once was during his heyday to deal with the new challenges.

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