A name plucked from the pages of a Wilbur Smith novel is not all that’s unusual about Australian Open qualifying wildcard Storm Sanders.
The world No.347’s path to a maiden singles victory at Melbourne Park on Thursday came two years after she had decided to concentrate solely on her doubles career.
Then, when a serious shoulder injury wiped out her 2018 season, Sanders’ dwindling bank account prompted her to spend last January working quietly as part of the Open’s match analysis team recording the playing statistics of others.
Tempted back to singles on a let’s-just-see-how-it-goes basis in October, the 25-year-old’s own numbers have since been highly impressive.
Through two lower-tier local ITF tournaments, a finals run at the wildcard playoff and now in the first round of qualifying, Sanders’ win-loss record stands at 15-3. Her 6-2, 6-0 thrashing of American Robin Anderson included 21 winners, just eight points lost on serve, and 12 of 13 points won at the net.
Certainly, it had been a long time coming – at the former Fed Cup representative’s sixth attempt in qualifying or as a main-draw wildcard at her home slam.
“I know, crazy, right? It’s pretty cool,’’ Sanders laughed, once Melbourne’s smoke and rain had cleared sufficiently to allow play to resume. “I’m pretty pumped about today, but I know tomorrow will be another challenge.’’
That will be against young Slovenian Kaja Juvan – even if, despite having played her first senior ITF tournament back in 2009, Sanders is hardly a geriatric at the age of just 25.
There have been many challenges and fluctuations since, before and after a peak ranking of 202nd in 2014 (and 63 in doubles three years later).
But, by 2018, after years of toiling away at the – mostly – lower levels of the game, where expenses are often higher than the paltry prize money on offer, Sanders decided to become a full-time doubles player. At least until the painful inflammation in her shoulder required a year out of the game.
“I honestly didn’t think I would play singles again, to be honest, and then I had the injury, and even when I came back I still wasn’t sure,’’ she said.
“When you’re injured you see things in a different light, it gives you a different perspective, and I just wanted to be out playing and enjoying it.
And for a while there I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play tennis again, because I couldn’t lift my arm above my shoulder, so I went a good seven, eight months before I could hit a ball without pain.
“But I had time to do a lot of fitness, so I actually feel like I’m lasting in the points longer, and I’m not putting so much pressure on myself – just actually enjoying the challenge and just trying to work things out on the court and not getting so emotional and too intense, I guess. I’m just more mature on court and understand the game better as well.
“It’s kind of funny, because I worked for the AO last year doing match analysis and coding. I needed to earn some money, and I wanted to do something while I was injured.
“I enjoyed doing the stats and it kind of helped me, as well, in not thinking just about myself on court, but what I’m trying to do to my opponent and the best way to construct and win the point.”
If it helped to give Sanders an objective view from outside looking in, then Thursday’s result guarantees a stress-relieving cheque for at least $20,000 to help with travelling expenses in the year ahead, with the carrot of $90,000 for opening round losers in the main draw almost too tasty to truly contemplate.
Having used the time off to finish her psychology degree and gain a coaching qualification, the Melbourne-based West Australian had nevertheless lost her Tennis Australia funding while inactive, and admits to thinking “I was like ‘I need to earn some money and pay the rent’.’’
It was only two months ago that Sanders could not have imagined she would be in this position, or performing this well, but refuses to think too far ahead.
In the rear-view mirror is a career that included a sole WTA-level match victory back in 2014, but also many lean times for the popular leftie, who has been fondly known as everything from Stormy to the Storminator to just plain Thunder.
Her name remains a reliable conversation-starter, and Sanders is far from finished, confident she is already a better player this time around, and one who will eventually become more consistent, too.
“I’d say I probably haven’t achieved what I think I’m capable of, but I’ve had my own journey and challenges through injury and setbacks and what not and just being older has also helped,” she said.
“I can see it as ‘this is my journey, I’m not going to compare myself to anyone else’.
“Everyone’s gone through different challenges and setbacks, but I’m just trying to be the best player I can be and the best person as well. I still think my best is yet to come, and I’m happy to be back playing and hopefully can get to that higher level.’’
If so. it would also mean she has graduated, too, from the AO stats department, for, at worst, a doubles wildcard with compatriot Priscilla Hon awaits.
“I ran into the match analysis team and they asked ‘do you want to do some coding?’,’’ Sanders smiles. “But it’s fine. I’m done with that for now.’’
Linda Pearce has covered more than 50 grand slam tournaments, including 31 Australian Opens, plus Davis Cup finals and Olympic Games. She will be heading The New Daily’s Australian Open coverage.