MELBOURNE, January 11- Australian Lleyton Hewitt expects to sense tennis history as he steps onto the court Wednesday for the first time in his career at the eight-man Kooyong Classic.
The 29-year-old former number one will be entering his 15th consecutive Australian Open starting on Monday without the benefit of any ATP events.
Hewitt has modified his traditional tune-up for the season’s opening major with an appearance last week at the Hopman Cup mixed teams event in Perth, and at the Kooyong club, the home of the Open until just over two decades ago.
He will be the headline player in the Classic field, which can usually count on a major name like Roger Federer, who has changed his own Grand Slam preparation for 2011 and is practising privately in Melbourne this week.
"Everyone prepares differently," Hewitt said. "This is my first time at Kooyong, there’s a lot of history about the place.
"I’ll be excited to play on the court where a lot of my tennis idols growing up played during past Australian Opens."
The rest of the field comprises top seed and Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, Frenchmen Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Spain’s Kooyong defending champion Fernando Verdasco, Russians Mikhail Youzhny and Nikolay Davydenko, and Austrian Jurgen Melzer.
"I felt I played well at the Hopman Cup," said No.54 ranked Hewitt, who once was on top of the ATP rankings and holds Grand Slam trophies from Wimbledon and New York.
"I came here to get three good matches, just like last week.
"The matches this week are a bonus for me, I trained really hard for 10 weeks up until Perth and feel really fit.
"Usually when you go that hard, there are niggles, but I haven’t had any.
"I’m focused on this week but obviously the big prize is in three weeks’ time."
Hewitt has undergone two hip surgeries, the last less than a year ago after losing in the Australian Open fourth round to Federer. He fought back to form and beat the Swiss for the grass title at Halle, Germany, six months later.
"My body is holding up extra well, I’m feeling good," Hewitt said.
"I’m usually injury-free at this time of year. I’m really looking forward to the event and I feel I can keep getting better with each match."
Verdasco said he was pleased to be building for the first major of the season under controlled conditions after finally getting an off-season break with Spain failing to make a third straight Davis Cup final.
"We are all trying to play the best tennis and get the best rhythm for the Open," said the number nine.
"It’s the same for me, I want to get used to the conditions for next week. There is no extra pressure on me."
Berdych, the Wimbledon finalist last summer against Rafael Nadal, is making his first Kooyong start.
"It’s nice to be part of the names here," said the Czech. "This is the first experience for me, but the field is very even and anyone can win in the end."
Wednesday’s opening lineup: Verdasco v Monfils, Hewitt v Youzhny, Berdych v Davydenko and Melzer v Tsonga.
The Kooyong final will be played on Saturday, two days before the start of the Australian Open across town in Melbourne Park.