Grand slam dark horses line up at Kooyong

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - While the giants of men's tennis flexed their muscles in practice at Melbourne Park on Tuesday, the game's dark horses gathered at the gentile Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club in the build-up to next week's Australian Open.

Once a launching pad to grand slam glory for past champions, the invitational Kooyong Classic held in Melbourne's leafy eastern suburbs will host a rather more modest lineup when it starts on Wednesday.

Twelfth-ranked Frenchman Gael Monfils, Russian world number 10 Mikhail Youzhny and Austria's Jurgen Melzer (11) join another Russian in Nikolay Davydenko (22) and the creaky-boned local hope and former world number one Lleyton Hewitt (54).

The collection of seasoned campaigners, many with question marks over their fitness, may be a far cry from the days when the likes of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and erstwhile regular Roger Federer slugged it out for the trophy.

But Kooyong's pedigree as a form guide for the Australian Open, where bolters often go deep into the second week, may give the players hopes of causing some upsets at Melbourne Park.

Few were talking up their chances, however, for the grand slam widely tipped to come down to a prize-fight between Rafa Nadal and arch-rival Federer.

"Well, first of all I hope that I stay injury-free," said the late-blooming Melzer, who reached his first grand slam semi-final at the French Open as a 29-year-old.

Melzer will play Tsonga in the late match on Wednesday and can count on his opponent's sympathy regarding injury niggles.

Tsonga, who surged to the final of the 2008 Australian Open before being beaten by Serb Novak Djokovic, will nurse a troublesome knee through the tournament.

"I don't know if I can say it's good but it's alright," said the Frenchman, whose final appearance at Kooyong last year was a springboard to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park.

Hewitt, a victim of two hip surgeries and a raft of other ailments in recent years, will line up against Youzhny, after Monfils plays Verdasco.

Berdych plays Davydenko in the other tie, the Russian seeking to recapture the form that carried him to the season-ending World Tour championship in 2009 prior to breaking his wrist at Indian Wells in March.

Berdych said he was enjoying the limelight at home in the Czech Republic following his breakout season.

"The season, it's already gone and then you're just starting and you just need to try to go step by step, not to be thinking too much," the 25-year-old said.

"As all other guys just said, stay without any injury, stay and hopefully it's going to be a good season again."

(Editing by Alastair Himmer)