Barty, de Minaur lead big Open challenge

Ash Barty and Alex de Minaur lead the home Australian Open challenge after big Sydney campaigns.
Ash Barty and Alex de Minaur lead the home Australian Open challenge after big Sydney campaigns.

Seeded young guns Ashleigh Barty and Alex de Minaur will lead the largest local contingent since the turn of the century when the Australian Open gets underway on Monday.

Successful qualifying campaigns from Thanasi Kokkinakis and Astra Sharma swelled Australia's representation in the singles draws to 22, the most since Lleyton Hewitt spearheaded a 23-strong home challenge in 2000.

Hopes are high that Barty and de Minaur can continue their sizzling summers and make deep runs at the season's first grand slam, the biggest and richest annual event on the Australian sporting calendar.

Barty has rocketed into joint fourth favourite with bookmakers to end Australia's 41-year Open title drought after taking down a string of heavyweights, including world No.1 Simona Halep, and going within a tiebreaker of winning the Sydney International lead-up event.

De Minaur went one better, heroically winning two matches on Saturday to claim his maiden ATP title in front of rapturous hometown fans in Sydney.

The legendary Ken Rosewall was courtside in the arena named in his honour for every one of de Minaur's matches and is convinced the 19-year-old is ready to shake up the Open draw.

"He's playing well enough to really be dangerous," Rosewall said.

De Minaur is happy to be sharing the spotlight with his fellow 2018 Newcombe Medallist Barty.

"She's had an unbelievable week. It's definitely not easy with the calibre of player she had to beat to get to the final and to be so close, but she's playing some great tennis," he said.

"She's really leading the nation. Hopefully she can have a massive Australian Open because she deserves it."

Barty, opening against Thailand's Luksika Kumkhum, and de Minaur, who starts his campaign against Portugal's Pedro Sousa, are among 14 Australians in action at Melbourne Park on day one.

US Open quarter-finalist John Millman and Bernard Tomic, who faces last year's runner-up Marin Cilic, also feature on Monday's bumper program.

Australian wildcard James Duckworth is undaunted by the prospect of taking on 17-times grand slam champion Rafael Nadal in the second match on Rod Laver Arena.

Australia is guaranteed at least one winner on day one, with qualifier Sharma playing wildcard Priscilla Hon.

Former women's champion Maria Sharapova has the distinction of opening centre-court proceedings against British qualifier Harriet Dart, with titleholders Caroline Wozniacki and Roger Federer in action on Monday night as the world's best battle it out for a record $62.5 million in prize money.

Australian Associated Press