Weight of national expectation on Barty, de Minaur in Australian Open

Alex de Minaur and Ashleigh Barty pose with their Newcombe Medals. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Maybe Billie Jean King said it best. Lleyton Hewitt isn't a bad example to follow, either.

Australia hasn't had a home-grown winner at the Australian Open since Chris O'Neill was crowned women's champion in 1978. The drought extends to 42 years for the men, with Mark Edmondson having last lifted the Norman Brooks Trophy in 1976.

For Australia's top two tennis players, Ash Barty and Alex de Minaur, there is no hiding from the expectation that comes with being a top Australian player at Melbourne Park. In a week's time, the rising duo will shoulder the hopes of a nation longing for a local winner, or a run deep into the second week at the very least.

For Barty, who finished the year as the No. 15-ranked women's player in the world following her victory at the WTA Elite Trophy, the reality of the pressure that can squeeze local hopes Down Under is nothing new. Heading into her sixth Australian Open campaign, the words of American great Billie Jean King have Barty adamant the passionate home crowd will be a blessing, rather than a banana skin.

"Pressure's a privilege, that's what Billie Jean always said, has always said to all of us," Barty told ESPN. "But when you go into the Aussie summer it's more excitement than anything else; we want to do well ourselves and knowing the whole nation is behind you and cheering for you no matter what.

"Having that extra support does bring on a little bit of pressure but you learn to embrace it and to enjoy it, and it makes it a whole lot more enjoyable."

While Barty consolidated her place among the women's top 20 during 2018, De Minaur rocketed up the men's standings after announcing himself to the world during last year's Australian summer. A victory at the year-ending Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan saw him hit a career-high ranking of 31, up an astonishing 177 places from the start of 2018.

"Well definitely that's where it all started for me [Australian Open], I gained huge amounts of confidence with those first couple of tournaments," De Minaur told ESPN. "I started to believe in myself; I started to believe that I belonged with these guys and I started backing myself as well. And I feel like when those three things are going together, it's amazing what you can achieve."

De Minaur's runner-up finish in Sydney at the start of the year and victory in Italy at its finish bookended a spectacular rise perfectly, but it was his efforts at Wimbledon and particularly the US Open that really created some buzz.

Having made the third round at The Championships before running into a white-hot Rafael Nadal, de Minaur engaged in an epic five-set classic with Marin Cilic in New York City in the kind of effort his hero and 2001 US Open champion would be proud.

"Playing Rafa on centre court, that's a very new experience for me," de Minaur said. "I felt like it was one of those things that you just learn from for a while, so the next time you step out on court with him you know what to expect and you can go out there and just play looser.

"And I definitely felt that when I played Cilic later in the year at the US Open, I felt that I was really close but it just didn't go my way. But hopefully next year [2019] I can start closing out some of those close matches against higher opponents."

Just as de Minaur finished the year on the best possible note, Barty's triumph at WTA Elite Trophy in China also has her excited about the Australian summer. Having had some time to reflect before a swift return to the training court, Barty also pointed to the middle part of the year as to when she felt her game really began to hum.

"I think after Wimbledon there was a bit of a change just generally, and I think we finished off the year really strongly which was great," Barty said. "But obviously Zhuhai was a bit of a bonus to finish off the year. Overall, the year was really consistent and that's what we're after, and then to be able to finish with a couple of titles, and a few doubles titles as well, was really handy."

Asked to nominate a couple of defining matches from her 2018 season, Barty added: "There were a couple, I think my third round at the U.S. Open was really good quality. Not many people knew my opponent but it was actually a really, really good quality match, and to be able to get through that in pretty straightforward fashion was pretty important, I think."

And it was at Flushing Meadows where Barty got her first taste of Grand Slam silverware as she took out the women's doubles alongside CoCo Vandeweghe. Having come so close with long-time doubles partner and close friend Casey Dellacqua, Barty was quick to credit her compatriot not just for her presence on the doubles court but also the West Australian's impact on her singles game.

"What Casey taught me on the doubles court has absolutely helped my singles game and it was nice to kind of get that monkey off the back with the U.S. Open title, although I would have loved to do it with Casey," Barty said.

"I know that she's super proud of me and I'm just so happy that I was able to get there eventually. She well and truly deserved one, we well and truly deserved one together but just never quite got it. But it was a really exciting couple of weeks in New York."

There's no point in hiding from reality, the 2018 seasons of Barty and de Minaur have them as the star local attractions at the Australian Open. Sure, Nick Kyrgios could do something to set tongues wagging, but as far as genuine second-week threats go, it's Barty and de Minaur for whom the spotlight shines brightest.

Barty will look to American legend King's mantra as she tries to improve on a best-ever third-round showing, while de Minaur will draw on the experience of last year's taste of Rod Laver Arena - a four-set loss to Tomas Berdych - and the never-say-die attitude of Lleyton Hewitt he has clearly adopted as the focal point of his game, for a strong showing in Melbourne himself.

Hewitt's run to the Australian Open final in 2005 stands out. Who knows: The duo may have even relived that journey as doubles partners last week?

"Well that's one of the many matches [2005 Open], the many tournaments, I watched of him, just sitting on the sofa back at home," de Minaur said. "I would watch his matches and then go out to the garage wall and hit balls against the wall, and try to replicate his technique and his fighting attitude."

In all likelihood, Australia's 40-year wait for a singles champion at Melbourne Park will continue. But in Barty and de Minaur the locals have two players for whom expectation is met with gratitude and the final point contested just as fiercely as it was the first.