MELBOURNE, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Take a walk around the Grand Slam Oval at Melbourne Park and it is easy to see why Australia has such high expectations of tennis success.
A long semi-circle of bronze busts of the likes of Rod Laver, Margaret Court, Roy Emerson and Evonne Goolagong bear witness to an era when Australian winners at majors were the rule rather than the exception.
Those expectations have not been met by a homegrown Australian Open singles champion for three and a half decades, however, and in recent years the lively Melbourne crowds have had scant opportunity to barrack for local heroes.
That is unlikely to change this year, unless former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur suddenly overcomes the injury woes that have beset her over the last few weeks and stage fright that strikes when she plays in Australia.
Warm-up tournament victories for Bernard Tomic and Lleyton Hewitt, though, have fired up hopes that the former can fulfill his potential or the latter can enjoy one last triumphant day in the sun.
Tomic’s triumph at the Sydney International was probably more significant than Hewitt’s at the Kooyong Classic exhibition but even so, it may still be a couple of years too early to talk about the 20-year-old as a potential Australian Open champion.
Tomic has thrown off the shackles of a miserable end to 2012 and started the new season with eight successive wins, including a stunning victory over world number one Novak Djokovic at the Hopman Cup.
Saturday’s Sydney title success was his first on the ATP Tour and he was still basking in the afterglow when he arrived in Melbourne on Sunday.
“It’s amazing. It’s very important for tennis to have a lot of confidence, so I‘m really confident. I‘m going to use this as much as I can for Tuesday and this whole tournament,” he told reporters.
“I‘m playing really good tennis, feeling physically really well. That’s why I think I’ve been playing good out there.”
Tomic has a rest day on Monday before his first round tie against Argentine Leonardo Mayer, but most local eyes are fixed on a potential third round encounter with Roger Federer, who he played in the last 16 last year.
“I would love to get in that position to play Roger in the third round,” he said. “He has to get there as well. You don’t know what can happen. Tennis is a funny sport.”
Tomic has been lauded as the next big thing in Australian tennis but former U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion Hewitt shows no sign of letting the light flicker out easily on his grand slam dreams.
The 31-year-old will drag his battered body into a 17th consecutive Australian Open on Monday with hope renewed after beating world number 15 Milos Raonic, number six Tomas Berdych and number seven Juan Martin del Potro at Kooyong.
Runner-up to Marat Safin in 2005, Hewitt was reluctant to indulge his compatriots about the state of men’s tennis in Australia on the back of two titles at warm-up events.
“Obviously we’re both hitting the ball well, but we’re both unseeded, too,” he said on Sunday.
”We probably had higher expectations when myself, (Mark) Philippoussis and (Pat) Rafter were in the top 10, top 15 in the world, and seeded at the majors.
“But we’re both hitting the ball well, obviously confident coming in.”
Hewitt did not have the best draw either, having been handed a first-round tie against eighth seed Janko Tipsarevic which will take place on Rod Laver Arena on Monday.
“I don’t care,” the feisty Australian said. “I’ll knock him off, try to take his spot in the draw.”
Stosur is again the Australian standard-bearer in the women’s draw but admits she has not looked past Taiwan’s Chang Kai-chen, who she meets on Monday, having crashed out in the opening round last year.
“I think this year I do feel better about things,” said the ninth seed, who has never been beyond the fourth round at Melbourne Park.
“I don’t feel as probably uptight or stressed or anything like that than last year. Last year I didn’t handle it so well. I need to try to play a bit better than what I have been.”
Stosur has been hampered by the effects of ankle surgery in the off-season and could hardly have started the year more poorly after falling at the first hurdle in both her warm-up events in Brisbane and Sydney.
“I‘m hoping I can turn it around,” said the 28-year-old. “I guess it’s just one of those things. You don’t always have the most ideal preparation, and even if you do, it doesn’t mean you’ll have the most ideal results.” (Editing by Alastair Himmer)