Perhaps for the first time in her career, the eyes of the world are set to descend upon local wildcard Storm Sanders as she takes the court at the Australian Open for the first time since 2016 come Tuesday. Well ... to be more accurate, they'll be on her opponent, Aryna Sabalenka, as the world No. 2 looks to bounce back from a disastrous lead into the tournament.
A semifinalist at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2021, Sabalenka lost to world No. 86 Kaja Juvan and world No. 93 Rebecca Peterson during two warm-up tournaments in Adelaide earlier this month; the Belarussian reduced to tears against Peterson as she sent down 21 double faults and, eventually, abandoned her serve to go underarm as the match progressed.
Of course, the sheer natural talent possessed by the 23-year-old suggests Sanders still has a towering mountain to climb if she is to stage what would be one of the biggest upsets in recent memory. But the odds, seemingly, are shrinking and, regardless of what does transpire, Sanders is determined to enjoy the experience and use it as a springboard for the year ahead.
"I feel like I'm more prepared than ever," Sanders told ESPN last week. "I think when the last time I played, I hadn't had that many experiences playing at a high level -- singles or doubles -- and I think I was more nervous back then than I am now.
"Whereas now I feel like in 2021 I had a lot of matches against some really good opponents. I beat [world No. 21] Elise Mertens at the [Billie Jean King Cup in November 2021]. I feel like I'm really fit. I'm the fittest I've ever been. And I'm confident I really kind of believe in myself. So yeah, I think I'm more prepared than ever."
Sanders arrives in Melbourne having had a bit of a better time in the City of Churches than Sabalenka; winning the Adelaide International women's doubles alongside long-time friend Ash Barty, who, according to the 27-year-old, is serving better than she ever has in her career.
But while Barty is set to focus exclusively on singles in the coming weeks, Sanders will be adding doubles and mixed doubles to her commitments: linking back up with Caroline Dolehide in the doubles -- the duo previously reaching the semifinals of Wimbledon and quarterfinals of the US Open -- and partnering with Neal Skupski in the mixed - the Brit the winner of Wimbledon's 2021 mixed doubles alongside Desirae Krawczyk.
"I'm super excited to get back out there with Caro," Sanders said. "We had some awesome results last year, but we've actually only played three tournaments together.
"So we actually haven't played that much together which is kind of funny, but we've had kind of a lot of success and we get along really well off the court which always helps on the court.
"I really love playing doubles. And it's great that we're seeded, it gives us maybe a few more opportunities.
"[And] I think I got lucky getting in touch with Neil. I'm really good friends with Desirae and I kind of reached out to her and said 'is Neil playing with anyone? I would love to play with him, if you could pass on his contact details'.
"And lucky she did. He was looking for a partner so I got super lucky to be able to play with someone who's a Grand Slam champion. It will be an amazing experience."
Sanders faces Sabalenka on Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday night