PERTH: A first-round showdown between newly-engaged tennis stars Lleyton Hewitt and Kim Clijsters will grab centre-stage in the A$1mil (US$752,000) Hopman Cup starting here tomorrow.
Australian favourite Hewitt and Belgian world number two Clijsters go head-to-head in doubles of the prestigious mixed team event next Wednesday, barely a fortnight after revealing plans to tie the knot.
The match is already a sell-out and will be one of the highlights of a tournament which kicks off a series of events building up to the Jan 19-Feb 1 Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of 2004.
“We're calling it the love match around here,” tournament director Paul McNamee said of the eagerly anticipated contest between Clijsters and Hewitt.
“Tickets for it sold out almost immediately. Everyone wants to see it. Kim is very popular with Australian crowds.”
McNamee said the match would also be pivotal for the competition with the winning mixed doubles team likely to secure a place in the final.
Clijsters is using the Hopman Cup, played on a medium-pace Rebound Ace surface similar to that used in the Australian Open, as a springboard for the Open as she continues her quest for a first Grand Slam singles tournament win.
McNamee said it was impossible to split the top five of the eight countries in the tournament, which starts at the Burswood Dome tomorrow and includes four-seeded nations, with reigning champions the United States ranked top.
“I think it's wide open. There is absolutely nothing between the top five teams,” McNamee said.
The US pairing of Lindsay Davenport and James Blake will start as slight favourites with the Australian combination of Alicia Molik and Hewitt seeded second, Clijsters and Xavier Malisse of Belgium third, and Anastasia Myskina and Marat Safin of Russia fourth.
But McNamee said the unseeded French duo of Amelie Mauresmo, currently ranked fourth in the world, and Fabrice Santoro were strong contenders.
“There's no doubt they are the dark horse. They are a very strong nation,” McNamee said.
“Amelie is a very, very hard player to beat and even if Fabrice loses his singles matches, there is absolutely no doubt he is the best doubles player in the tournament,” McNamee said.
“You would have to say they would start favourite in just about any doubles match they play and that means they are well in contention, there's no doubt at all about that.”
Davenport, defeated by Clijsters in the semi-finals of last year's US Open when she was hampered by a niggling left foot injury that later required surgery, is returning to form, rising to number five in the rankings.
The 27-year-old Californian was called in as a late replacement for world number three Serena Williams who ruled herself out of the event saying she was not quite prepared.
Williams and Blake paired to win the tournament last year beating Australians Hewitt and Molik 3-0 in the final. It was the US' second win in the 15-year history of the event.
The tournament, played in a round-robin format, includes two groups of four teams each with two players per team to face each other in women's and then men's singles followed by a mixed doubles contest.
Group A consists of the US, Russia, France and the Czech Republic represented by Barbora Strycova and Jiri Novak.
Group B is made up of Australia, Belgium, the Slovak Republic team of Daniela Hantuchova and Karol Kucera and either Canada or Hungary who play-off for the fourth berth on Saturday.
All matches are the best of three sets with the exception of the mixed doubles which uses a tie-break system if scores are locked at one-set all.
The winning teams from each group will meet in the final on Saturday, Jan 10. – AFP