Tennis stars gather for Australian Open

World number one Rafael Nadal hits a return during a practice session for the upcoming Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 9. (AAP)

The world's top tennis players have begun gathering in Melbourne for the Australian Open, which gets underway next week.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The world's top tennis players have begun gathering in Melbourne for the Australian Open, which gets underway next week.

The 102nd edition of the Grand Slam tournament marks the start of the 2014 tennis season.

Kristina Kukolja reports.

(Click on audio tab above to listen to this item)

(SFX feet, tennis ball, then:) "Games, set, match Djokovic. 6-7, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2." (Crowd cheering, applause.)

The crowning moment of the 2013 Australian Open men's singles final between Britain's Andy Murray and defending champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia.

Both men are back this year; Wimbledon champion Murray chasing the title that eludes him, and Djokovic hoping to secure a fifth finals win on Rod Laver Arena.

Over two weeks, Melbourne Park welcomes again the world's top men's and women's players on the international professional circuit.

Completing the so-called Big Four are Swiss Roger Federer, and world-number-one Rafael Nadal, of Spain -- who after missing last year's Australian Open due to injury returns in fine form -- with last year's US and French Opens to his name.

Crowd favourites Joe Wilfried Tsonga of France, Juan Martin del Potro from Argentina, and Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland will also be playing.

Lleyton Hewitt will be among the Aussie men vying for the top prize, alongside Bernard Tomic, whose father is banned from the venue under a temporary ATP suspension for misbehaviour at another tournament.

In the women's draw, Australia has its top player, Sam Stosur, and Ashleigh Barty.

They'll be up against a host of Grand Slam winners including Maria Sharapova of Russia, and China's Li Na.

But all eyes will be on world number one Serena Williams, of the US.

She's determined to take the tournament title from Victoria Azarenka, having -- in the lead up to Melbourne -- beaten the Belarussian in the final of the Brisbane International.

Williams says the match was a great test for her ahead of the Australian Open.

"It showed me where my level was and I feel like I definitely have some room for improvement, and things I want to improve on, going into Melbourne, and things I have to improve on if I want to win. So, I'm happy I was able to play both Maria and Victoria because they brought their A-games against me and I know now what I need to do for Melbourne, and I look forward to it."

Until 1998, the Australian Open was played on grass.

That's the year it moved from the Kooyong Club to Melbourne Park.

It's also the year the first of four annual Grand Slams began to catch up in popularity with the others: the US and French Opens, and Wimbledon.

A lot has changed since then besides the playing surface -- now hardcourt.

In 2014, the total prize money is $33-million-dollars, up from $30-million.

And a major redevelopment of the venue sees the addition of a retractable roof over one of the main courts.

Tennis Australia's Director of Events & Facilities, Tom Larner, says the aim is to make the fans' experience more enjoyable.

"We've got a lot more shade on site -- a new roof over Margaret Court Arena which won't be operational this year, but it certainly will provide a lot more comfort for patrons on site. We've got new activations on Grand Slam Oval, so plenty for fans and family to do. And we obviously have the new National Tennis Centre that was completed just prior to last year's Australian Open, and a whole lot more player practice areas. We'll be promoting practice for fans, so they'll know where their favour players are playing, and they'll be able to get through and see their favourite players playing this year at the Australian Open."

Aside from the main singles draws, the Australian Open features a men's and women's, and mixed doubles competition, as well as wheelchair and junior tournaments.

Tom Larner says the juniors championships have launched some players into successful professional careers.

"If you look at the records of the juniors over the last five or ten years you'll recognise the names that are now at the top of the scene. So, they really are the stars of the future and that's pretty exciting actually to come down and watch some of those juniors play. We've had great success from an Australian perspective over the last few years, and the two boys in the final -- Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis -- last year squared off, with Nick winning. They've pushed through and Nick is into the top 200 in the world. And, of course, Thanasi Kokkinakis played Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane, and pushed him in the Brisbane International. So, those two are pushing through. You really will see the stars of the future of the next few years pushing through in the juniors."

If Melbourne Park provides a glimpse into the future of tennis, its glorious past is never too far away.

Two-time Australian Open champion Pete Sampras will come back to present the trophy at the men's singles final.

Past greats Mats Wilander, Goran Ivanisevic, Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis have signed on for the legends competition.

Watching from the sidelines will be former rivals Boris Becker as Novak Djokovic's coach, and Stefan Edberg -- a new addition on Roger Federer's team.

And honoured guest Rod Laver makes a return.

Laver, after whom Melbourne's centre court is named, took the first Open-era Australian Open men's singles final in 1969 in Brisbane.

But not before facing fellow Aussie, Tony Roche, in an entertaining semi-final.

(Commentator) "Like all of us he likes a little bit of beer when he's finished a long day. And that's Rod Laver serving from the northern end. (Tennis rally, then crowd) Out!" (Applause)



Source SBS Radio, World News Australia

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