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Monday, January 18, 2010
Updated: January 21, 9:28 AM ET
More gloom than grins for Aussie contingent

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The standard-bearer is feuding with the next big thing; the top female hope admits she can't handle the pressure; and last year's darling -- accompanied by an entourage apparently into air rage -- fizzled.

Aussie tennis has seen better days, the days when Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe gracefully prowled the circuit.

The Aussie media have been enamored for much of the domestic summer with Lleyton Hewitt's impasse with 17-year-old Bernard Tomic. Ill feeling stemmed from Tomic's snubbing a practice session with the two-time Grand Slam champ at Wimbledon, and Tomic's dad, John, hinted this month that Hewitt didn't want his son on the Davis Cup team because of their Croatian heritage.

Hewitt earlier suggested Tomic wasn't ready to play the Davis Cup, which is held in especially high esteem in Australia, and you can see why. For all his promise, Tomic is still ranked just 289th. Tomic is the same chap who, as an early teen, predicted he would win all four majors by the time he was 18.

"I guess the thing between Lleyton and Tomic has had good legs in the media," Wally Masur, a coach with Tennis Australia and a former touring pro, said with a smile. "But that's really between them, and I think it'll just come to its logical conclusion as Bernard keeps improving. His time will come. He and Lleyton will be in the same locker room, and that will resolve itself."

Hewitt remains Australia's most potent threat, and he began his quest Tuesday to become the country's first men's home winner since Mark Edmondson in 1976. How close he was in 2005, derailed at the last hurdle by an inspired, and focused for a change, Marat Safin.

Hewitt surpassed last year's output, when, back from a serious hip injury, he unluckily drew Chilean shot-maker Fernando Gonzalez in the first round. Brazilian qualifier Ricardo Hocevar fell to the scrappy Hewitt under the lights.

Looming for the former world No. 1, however, is a rejuvenated Marcos Baghdatis in the third round, and if he prevails, probably Roger Federer in the fourth. Baghdatis downed Hewitt in the Sydney quarterfinals last week.

"Lleyton's in good shape and had a decent result in Sydney," said Scott Draper, a former pro also now a coach with Tennis Australia. "I think his body is getting back to where it needs to be. It's the best it's been in a long time, it's a major, and that's what he plays for. Expect big things from him."

Tomic won his second career match Monday, both coming in Melbourne against less than household names. Italian Potito Starace, averse to non-clay courts, was his victim in 2009, and French qualifier Guillaume Rufin fell Monday. Up next is a much bigger obstacle, Croatian dark horse Marin Cilic.

Samantha Stosur had a breakthrough season in 2009, reaching the French Open semifinals with a refreshing attacking game and rising from 52nd to 13th in the season-ending rankings.

The results raised expectations at home, and shy Stosur subsequently crumbled at the Hopman Cup in Perth and in Sydney. In Sunday's exhibition for victims of the earthquake in Haiti, Stosur appeared uneasy sharing the court with the likes of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams. Tomic didn't.

Stosur toiled Tuesday, eventually overcoming Chinese qualifier Xinyun Han in three long sets.

"It's always nice to get through that first one and know that you've got it under your belt," Stosur said. "Then you can just kind of go out there and play. It does take a bit of pressure off."

At least she's still in the tournament.

Jelena Dokic, who pulled off one comeback after another to reach the quarterfinals last year, meekly fell to Russian slugger Alisa Kleybanova on Monday night. Hampered by mono and a back injury after her 2009 heroics, Dokic wept in practice with acclaimed coach Tony Roche this week -- such is her mental state.

Her boyfriend, Tin Bikic, and his brother, Borna, got into an argument with a female passenger and member of the cabin crew on a flight from Hobart to Melbourne last week, prompting Dokic's management team to issue an apology.

All the gloom will be lifted if Hewitt, or anyone else, goes deep into the second week.

"We desperately need champions, and I think we almost expect it given how good our past players have been," Masur said. "It's almost like, 'We're Australians, we always have Grand Slam champions, what's wrong?'"