Lleyton Hewitt will unzip the cover of his Yonex racquet on Rod Laver Arena this afternoon and, after hitting up with his first-round opponent, Belgium’s Steve Darcis, begin his 12th consecutive campaign to win the Australian Open.

Hewitt is only 26 but in tennis terms that almost qualifies him as a veteran. He will know, deep down, that time is running out to win this damn event that torments him so. The limitations in his game are being exploited like never before, squadrons of hungry young prodigies are being let loose on the pro scene each season and the window of opportunity is sliding closed, little by little, each passing year.

Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon at 29, and Pete Sampras the US Open at 30, but they were rarities. And Roger Federer was yet to hit his stride. For Hewitt to achieve his dream, and become the first Australian to win the Norman Brookes trophy since Mark “Eddo” Edmondson in 1976, then realistically he has to do it this year or next.

The draw has not been overly kind to him. After what seems to be a relatively straightforward opening two rounds, he will probably come up against Marat Safin, his conqueror in the 2005 final, or Cypriot 15th seed, Marcos Baghdatis, in the third round. And things will only get tougher from there.

Seeded No.19, “Rusty” Hewitt will again carry Australia’s hopes in our “Asia-Pacific” grand slam. He is the only local in either the men’s or women’s draw with a half-decent chance. And that’s giving him the best of it. The others are just making up the numbers.

And there’s the rub. Such is the dire state of Australian tennis, that we now produce more world-class aerial skiers, motorcycle riders, mountain bikers and squash players than we do tennis players. The sport that was once so readily identifiable with Australia has become a peripheral concern.

So sad is the situation that we have had to read interminable pieces over the past four weeks about whether Mark Philippoussis and Jelena Dokic can get through pre-qualifying for the Open. Pre-qualifying! As if they’d be a factor in the main draw.

When their time comes, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe should be put in a glass case at the national museum, like Phar Lap, so future generations of schoolchildren can be told by their parents about Australia’s salad days of serve and volley. When we ruled the world in a game called tennis.

But by then, China will quite possibly have got hold of our Grand Slam and we will be left with nothing to show for our rich heritage in the game except for sepia-toned Davis Cup photographs, and tumbleweeds rolling across suburban courts.

Yet that grim vision will not matter a jot to the thousands of people who will pour into Melbourne Park over the next fortnight. It is one of sport’s inexplicable ironies that the popularity of the Australian Open continues to grow in inverse proportion to the success of its home-grown players. A bit like the Arsenal football club, which has not had an Englishman – much less a north Londoner – represent it for years.

Centre court will be close to a sell-out for Hewitt’s match and the punters will put aside their antipathy for the South Australian, who polarises public opinion in much the same way as the Australian cricket team, and barrack for an Australian win. It might be one of the few they get to see.

But Darcis is no mug. Last year he was among five first-time winners on the ATP Tour, slashing his ranking from No. 474 to 83.

In fact – and this will give Hewitt pause for thought – in winning the Dutch Open in July at only his third ATP start, Darcis’ ranking of 297 made him one of the lowest-ranked ATP tournament winners since 1985. And the man who holds that record? Yep, the winner in Adelaide in 1998 while ranked 550 in the world – a certain Lleyton Glynn Hewitt.