Storm Hunter may be an unfamiliar name in this year’s line-up of Newcombe Medal finalists, but you definitely know the doubles star and Billie Jean King Cup standout, writes LINDA PEARCE.
Storm Sanders was good. Storm Hunter is better. The name, that is.
It is also the least familiar in the line-up of Newcombe Medal finalists that includes headliners Ash Barty and Nick Kyrgios, world No.24 Alex de Minaur, women’s No.1 Ajla Tomljanovic and Wimbledon doubles winners Matt Ebden and Max Purcell.
For Hunter, which Sanders became after her November marriage to long-time partner Loughlin at a regional winery where Daria Saville, Jess Moore and Samantha Harris were among the bridesmaids, Mrs is not her only new title.
There is also grand slam champion (winning the 2022 US Open mixed doubles with John Peers), top 10 doubles player (peaking at No.8 in October), and Billie Jean King Cup standout (after helping propel Australia to the brink of its first title in 48 years) the next month.
Hunter, a first-time nominee ranked 242nd in singles who is playing career-best tennis at 28, won’t win the Newk. That, surely, will be her friend and former housemate Barty, despite not having played since her drought-snapping Australian Open finals triumph over Danielle Collins.
In most other years, Kyrgios’ Wimbledon singles final, moral top 10 debut denied by the lack of rankings points at the All England Club and AO doubles crown would be enough to earn him the major gong at an awards night that will emerge from Covid mothballs on Monday for the first time since 2019.
Having made himself unavailable for the Davis Cup final, Kyrgios is currently playing a lucrative exhibition event in Saudi Arabia, while Hunter, a regular Newk Medal attendee, will enjoy the rare frocking-up process and celebration of the game at all levels after a strong period for Australian tennis.
“Obviously I had a really good year, but I didn’t think I was going to get nominated, so it’s really amazing to be recognised for my results but also the way I represented Australia, I think that was a big part of my nomination, too,’’ says Hunter, who was unbeaten in the BJK Cup preliminaries in Glasgow until a three-set finals loss to Swiss Jil Teichmann.
“That’s something that I’m most proud of and I just wanted to give it everything I had and I did. I left nothing in the tank in the final match. I had nothing left.’’
Yet if Hunter — who is back from a North Queensland honeymoon and into pre-season training at home in Melbourne — may do a double-take when she hears herself announced, the WA-raised lefty suspects she won’t be the only one.
“I think everyone will be like, ‘I’ve never heard of that player before’,’’ she laughs, having raised the stakes in the best-name-in-the-game contest, in which Anna Smashnova was a past contender and Tennys Sandgren a current one.
“Now I feel like it definitely can’t be beat.’’
As happily as it has ended, 2022 was a mixed year in some respects, and Hunter’s original coach and long-time mentor Nicole Pratt wonders how different the singles outcome may have been had two results gone the other way.
First, a three-set defeat against soon-to-be Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina in Adelaide. Then a loss to Aryna Sabalenka after leading the AO’s second seed by a set and a break on Rod Laver Arena in the prime evening slot at her home slam.
What Hunter does know is that, having reached a career-high 119th 14 months ago to be within volleying distance of the top hundred slot breakthrough has chased for her whole career, the self-inflicted pressure became stifling.
“I was so close to cracking I guess this childhood dream of mine and I didn’t think it was ever going to happen, so I almost put too much expectation on myself to do that and make that (happen) fast, I guess.’’
Meanwhile, she was also trying to combine those singles ambitions with a thriving doubles career, with one of the enduring juggles of tennis the fact that going deep into doubles tournaments often means missing the start of the next event. Often for weeks at a time.
“This year was a bit of a learning experience, trying to manage both. It’s really tricky and I’m trying to work out calendar-wise where I focus on doubles and then when I focus on singles,” she says.
“It is really hard because I have really high goals in both, and obviously because I have had a lot of injuries in the past, too.’’
Issues which she only discovered more recently were linked to her auto-immune condition, ankylosing spondylitis, which is now medicated but constantly monitored, and occasionally triggered by travel and the physical load of playing.
“Some mornings I wake up and I can’t walk and it takes me a good two hours to get going, so it’s just things like that,’’ she says.
“Some parts of my body tend to hurt more than others if I’m having a bit of a flare-up, but it’s just listening to my body and trying to manage that as well as I can, which I feel like I’ve been doing well. I haven’t had to take extended periods of time off, which is amazing.’’
A dozen years ago, Pratt was at the Hopman Cup when she spotted the local kid hitting at the State Tennis Centre in the midday furnace of a sweltering Perth summer.
Liking what she saw, Pratt offered to help the 16-year-old and soon organised a tennis scholarship in Melbourne, but first set her a mini-test by inviting Sanders back again to practise the same time the next day.
A for effort. As usual.
Still in her corner now, Pratt nominates Hunter’s left-handedness as her point of difference, while the serve has become more of a strength than the almost-liability it was, and that strong forehand now needs to be used a little more often down the line than too predictably crosscourt.
“At times I’ve felt like she wanted to overplay, she wanted to be too aggressive, and now I think she’s finding that nice balance,’’ says Pratt, Australia’s BJK Cup coach and former world No.35 who has no doubt Hunter can be a top 100 player. Top 50, even.
“I think she’s playing the best tennis she has in her life right now, for sure. She has more belief within herself and the fact that she’s week in, week out with the best players in the world and she’s on the doubles court with them, I think that’s really helped her on the singles court.’’
Hunter, who missed almost two years with a shoulder injury before returning with what was initially a doubles-only focus in 2018, agrees her experiences against singles stars on the doubles court made her question why that form could not translate.
She would offer herself as a practise partner wherever possible, too. “So I would play against the top players and be ‘OK, my level’s not that far off, if I’m beating them in practise’.
“And just being older and getting those experiences definitely help, so I think it’s a bit of everything. I wish I had that belief as an 18, 19- year-old.
“Better late than never.’’
Among her practise partners for many years was a particularly handy one: Barty.
The pair remain close, teamed up at the Tokyo Olympics, and attended each others’ weddings, yet although Hunter still often receives post-match messages, other text exchanges with the Queensland retiree tend to be more about dogs and golf.
“We don’t talk much tennis when we’re together but Ash always messages me throughout the year. If I’ve had a good result she’ll say, ‘Great job, I always knew you could do that’, or something like that. She’s been a great supporter of mine.’’
Having watched the 2021 Wimbledon final from the Barty player box, Hunter and Saville watched this year’s Australian Open decider elsewhere in the stand.
“I knew it was gonna be crazy and I didn’t want to get in the way,’’ says one of the more popular figures in the travelling Aussie troupe. “It was a big moment for Ash and her family and her team and I’m obviously her friend, but I didn’t want to interrupt the celebrations.’’
If success came vicariously at the start of this season, then the past three months ensured it would be one to remember for on-court reasons, too.
In their first collaboration, Hunter and Peers shared the mixed title at Flushing Meadows, edging Kirsten Flipkens and Edouard Roger-Vasselin in a match tie-break to snare Australia’s fourth major for the year after Barty and Kyrgios/Thanasi Kokkinakis at Melbourne Park, then Ebden/Purcell in London.
“To win a grand slam has been a dream of mine, no matter if it was singles, doubles or mixed. So to be there on the final weekend was amazing, and also to play on Arthur Ashe, the biggest court.’’
Hunter made the women’s doubles semis with Caroline Dolehide, in the other half of the US Open draw from her mate Ellen Perez, with whom she shared a special few minutes in the near-empty locker room.
“We were like, ‘This is so cool, we’ve come from playing 14 and under events, so it’s really special’. But we feel like we belong there and we want more success, really.’’
The pair teamed up twice at the BJK Cup finals in Scotland, for which Hunter prepared with a pair of semis at US$80,000 ITF events to remind herself that she could play singles as well. She then promptly defeated higher-ranked trio Viktoria Kuzmova, Alison van Uytvanck and Heather Watson before a gutsy loss to world No.35 Teichmann.
Belinda Bencic then clinched the title for Switzerland against Tomljanovic. Still, it was a fine week for Alicia Molik’s team, many of whom had a Rutherglen wedding to attend once they returned home.
Hunter will start 2023 in Adelaide — where she won the title with Barty this year, and plans to play with world No.1 Katerina Siniakova in week one.
Singles, too, and the prospect of an Australian Open wildcard is considered a virtual certainty — if not admitted by Hunter herself — and where a first round win would be her first in five attempts and maiden success at a slam.
Regardless, there will be a reunion with Peers in the mixed and a partnership with Belgian Elise Mertens in the women’s doubles that will continue on the WTA Tour where scheduling permits.
Last January, one thing the Sabalenka match confirmed was that she can mix it at the top level. Another is that it is not about the experiences any more, but the wins.
“It was kind of a moment in time that, ‘OK, now that I’ve had that experience, I want more of that’ and to win those matches and that’s kind of the whole belief thing, and believing that my level is maybe not No.2, but definitely top 100, 80, 70.
“For me, it’s taking away that whole, ‘You have to be top hundred to identify as a successful tennis player’ (mentality). It’s more that I genuinely believe my level is good enough to be playing main draw slams and winning matches at that level, so just gotta give myself a chance to do it.’’
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