Kimiko Rises Again
TOKYO, Japan - This decade there has been another Japanese woman making the headlines back home, but in the 1990s it was Kimiko Date who led her nation in the tennis world, winning seven singles titles on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and making it all the way up to No.4 in the rankings. She retired aged 26 at the end of the 1996 season, but now - nearly a dozen years later - she has come back for a piece of the action, and is enjoying every minute of it.
No other Japanese player has achieved the same level of success - at least in singles - as Date did in the first phase of her career. In addition to her seven titles she had 18 wins over Top 10 players (including one over a reigning world No.1, beating Steffi Graf in Fed Cup play in 1996) and spent 153 non-consecutive weeks in that elite herself. She reached the semifinals at three of the four Grand Slams and was a two-time quarterfinalist at the other. The only other Japanese player near the same level of success is Ai Sugiyama, who has been as high as No.8 in singles (although she has made it to No.1 in the world in doubles).
On September 24, 1996, Date announced she would retire from the Tour at the end of the season. After an early exit at the season-ending Championships to a 16-year-old and on-the-rise Martina Hingis, she indefinitely stepped out of the limelight. She certainly kept herself busy in the years that followed, however.
"I had a lot of pressure on me during those years, and I was too young for it," the soft-spoken Japanese said. "After I retired I didn't play too much tennis, but I continued to do sports. I ran the London marathon in 2002 and was really happy about it, because I finished in three hours and 27 minutes, which is a good time for me. I was doing pilates too. I still enjoyed challenges, just different ones."
During the break she also married German race car driver Michael Krumm, hence the name change. Krumm, who races in Japan, encouraged his wife to come back to professional tennis, and it eventually worked.
"My husband was always talking about motorsports and kept telling me I could try playing tennis again. I played some exhibition matches against Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova last year, and it made me want to play even more. I enjoy exhibitions a lot, but it doesn't really matter if you win or lose them, and I really wanted to compete seriously. So I started practicing seriously again and this year I decided I'd return to professional tennis."
Date Krumm's first event back came in May at Gifu, Japan, one of the bigger ITF Circuit events out there. She was awarded a wildcard into qualifying and was an overwhelming success, making it through qualifying and to the final of the main draw, losing to current Top 50 player Tamarine Tanasugarn in three sets; she also won the doubles title. Date Krumm's fire was stoked from that week and she would pick up three singles titles on the ITF Circuit during the summer.
"I was very surprised in myself," she said. "I was gone for almost 12 years. I thought I would lose many times when I came back but even in my first one back I did so well. I couldn't have imagined that success before the comeback."
In September she played her first Tour-level event of the year as a wildcard into the qualifying at the Toray Pan Pacific Open. She won her first two matches - including a head-turning win over Top 50 player Casey Dellacqua - before falling one round short of the main draw, losing to Canada's Aleksandra Wozniak.
"Women's tennis is much tougher now than it was before. There is a lot more power and the players are tougher. Mentally I'm still at their level though. I need more time to practice with the newer players, otherwise I won't get used to their power. But beating a Top 50 player definitely gave me belief I can still compete with them. I just need more practice to feel comfortable at this level again."
Date Krumm will play the second Tour event of her comeback at the AIG Japan Open Tennis Championships in Tokyo, then round out the rest of the season on the ITF Women's Circuit. In 2009, she'll be heading to Australia.
"I have three more tournaments in Japan this season, and then we'll see if my ranking will get me into Australian Open qualifying. I haven't decided on anything after that. It depends on my body, but I'm really going to work hard. I'm getting a lot of attention in Japan but I'm really just trying to concentrate on my tennis."
One thing is certain: Date Krumm isn't motivated by expectations or anything external. She is back to enjoy her tennis, as well as see if she can still do it.
"This time, win or lose, I'm just trying to enjoy it. I'm going to have more fun. And I think this will be good for Japanese tennis too - I hope I can bring some attention back to Japanese tennis, and maybe even inspire a few people, too