By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic gave Australia an unwanted reputation as a breeding ground for tennis brats during a tempestuous 2015 and the pair will be firmly under the spotlight in front of home crowds at Melbourne Park.
With former world number one Lleyton Hewitt set to retire and the last of his two grand slam titles at the 2002 Wimbledon championships a distant memory, Australia has long yearned for a new force in men's tennis to challenge at the majors.
Tomic, 23, and Kyrgios, 20, have both been tagged as the future of the sport in the country but the excitement generated by their undeniable talent gave way to dismay last season as the pair hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Following a Wimbledon campaign where Kyrgios railed at match officials and was jeered by fans for appearing to tank a game in defeat to Richard Gasquet, the hot-headed tyro sunk to a new low during the U.S. hardcourt season.
His lewd, off-the-cuff remark directed at Stan Wawrinka during their match at the Rogers Cup sparked worldwide condemnation and a suspended ban from the ATP Tour.
Australia's number one Tomic was also a lightning rod for criticism at Wimbledon, where he launched a jaw-dropping tirade against his home tennis association, complete with character assassinations of some of its most senior managers.
Banished from the Davis Cup team for a second time in his career, Tomic was later apprehended by Miami police for trespassing and resisting arrest after hotel guests complained of a noisy party in his room.
Though the charges were later dropped, local media were quick to link the Miami incident with a number of brushes with the law in Australia, where Tomic has had his drivers' license canceled after a number of speeding offences and once clashed with police following an infamous brawl in a roof-top jacuzzi.
All but lost in a turbulent year for their management teams was their unquestionable progress on-court, with the pair shrugging off each scandal to complete their most encouraging seasons.
IMPROVED WORK ETHIC
Kyrgios' run to last year's quarter-finals at Melbourne Park made him the first local men's entrant to reach the last eight in a decade and he made his first ATP final at Estoril.
His season also featured impressive wins over top 10 opponents and he enters the Australian Open ranked world number 30 after a confidence-boosting win over world number two Andy Murray at the Hopman Cup.
Long criticized for his work ethic, Tomic put in his most taxing season and famously captured his third ATP title at Bogota a week after spending time in a cell following his Miami arrest.
Tomic now holds a career-high ranking of 17, having upset top 10 player Kei Nishikori during a promising run to the semi-finals of the Brisbane International last week.
Although the pair were both omitted from Davis Cup ties last year, Tennis Australia have welcomed them back with open arms and fans have rejoiced in their early season form.
Local media reported with a tone of surprise that Kyrgios celebrated his team's Hopman Cup triumph by returning immediately to the court for more practice.
The pair's rehabilitation remains unfulfilled, however, with the ATP's suspended sentence from the Wawrinka incident still hanging over Kyrgios for another month.
Tomic risked a lot of good will gained in recent months after reports emerged this week that he had abused staff at a Gold Coast resort over a dispute arising from access to its tennis courts. The player quickly issued a public apology.
"Habits die a bit hard," former coach Neil Guiney, who helped guide Tomic into the professional ranks, told News Ltd media.
"He's got to watch that sort of thing because everyone else is watching."
(Editing by John O'Brien)