Article On Kimiko 'Come Back Glory'
No Sell-By Date: Comeback glory at 39 for Kimiko
By Kamakshi Tandon
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images
Date Krumm won Seoul a day before her 39th birthday to become the second oldest tournament winner in WTA tour history.
Even in a year crammed with comebacks by former world No. 1s named Sharapova, Clijsters and Henin, Kimiko Date Krumm has managed to stand out.
The Japanese veteran's title-winning performance in Seoul last month, acclaimed around the globe, came a day before her 39th birthday and made her the second oldest tournament winner in the history of the women's tour.
Her age may have been the headline grabber, but Date herself would say the most impressive thing about her return to the winner’s circle is that it came after almost 12 years away from competition.
"It's not about age, it's the break," she told TENNIS.com in an interview earlier this year.
In 1996, the former No. 4 surprised the tennis world by retiring at the peak of her career. Faced with increasing schedule requirements, Date called it quits, wanting to marry and settle down sooner rather than later. Then in April 2008, she just as unexpectedly decided to make a comeback (anyone could be forgiven for thinking she was Belgian).
Date was urged to resume playing by her husband, German professional car racer Michael Krumm, whom she met at the Le Mans car race in France after she had retired. (Krumm has said he had had his eye on Date ever since the mid-1990s, when he lived in Japan and raced for for Nissan.) After playing an exhibition against Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf in early 2008, Date dipped her toe back in the competitive waters with a few minor league events in Japan, and after climbing steadily for a year and a half, has yet to find herself out of her depth. Winning in Seoul vaulted her into the Top 100 in the WTA rankings, where the youthful-faced Date doesn't look out of place even though the average competitor’s age is about 24. If anything, it’s her slight stature—she’s only 5-foot-4—that looks dated by the standards of today’s game.
Thirtysomethings everywhere want to know: how does she do it?
Date credits jogging and Pilates with restoring her fitness to a point where pro tennis once again seemed feasible, though a comeback was initially the furthest thing from her mind.
"When I stopped in 1996, maybe two years I didn't do anything," she said of her post-retirement life in Japan. "I just relaxed—I didn't travel any more, I stayed at home, I didn't want to pick up the racquet, I didn't want to see the tennis."
After some time, Date began giving kids tennis lessons, which forced her to "start moving" again. Soon she was hitting with friends, swimming and jogging—just once a week at first, and then three or four times a week.
Next came an invitation to play an exhibition match, a critical event in many a comeback story. Date practiced assiduously for a year and a half to prepare for the event, and decided she would also enter the doubles at the WTA Tokyo Princess Cup in 2002.
But then, a twist in the tale—quite literally. Date injured her ankle during her doubles return, and eventually required surgery to repair her right Achilles’ tendon. That set the chain of events back a few years, though the jogging Date did as part of her rehabilitation led to her running the 2004 London marathon in a more-than-respectable three hours, 27 minutes.
The performance proved to be a milestone. "After the London marathon I start more exercise than before," she said. "One hour running almost every day. Not so much [weight] training—just running, Pilates.
"When I was a player before I had always a problem with my shoulder, so I couldn't hit with full power. But after retiring, I did the Pilates exercises and now I don't have any problem with my shoulder."
And the rest is history—or at least some notable trivia. Date is the oldest WTA titlist since Billie Jean King won Birmingham in 1983 at 39 years and 7 months, and with plans to play for another two years, the evergreen Date has a shot at eclipsing King's record. She was 0-8 in WTA-level matches before her big breakthrough in Seoul, but is now almost certain to get direct entry into the Australian Open next season. (Date qualified for the main draw at the 2009 Australian Open, her first major since 1996, and lost in the first round to seeded player Kaia Kanepi, 8-6 in the third.)
Many of Date's opponents are too young to even remember having seen her play on television. Date recalled a match against Shahar Peer at the Japan Open last year, saying, "Shahar Peer, she [didn't] know me but her father knows me. She explained to me after the match, that 'My father told me you were in the Top 10 before.'
"Most times the coach speaks to me—‘Ah, I remember you.' But not so much players."
Date still plays a mid-1990s game, a relic holding its own against modern versions that are more advanced but still have a few bugs in them. She is not powerful by today's standards, nor does she bamboozle opponents with spins and slices. She simply hits the ball very clean and flat, and over the course of a match, her steadiness and intelligent placement can end up winning out against the streakiness currently so common on the women’s tour.
Date also feels that doing commentary for Japanese television during her retirement has given her perspective during matches. "The view is more wide, and I got the other side, not [just] the players' [viewpoint]," she said. "When I'm losing, I've watched many kinds of matches. I can say to myself, a game is a game, sometimes it happens. So I can control my feelings."
Off the court, she has shed some of the shyness and uncertainty of the past.
"When I was young, I didn't like so much traveling. My English was a problem; it was difficult to speak," she recalled. "No computer, no mobile phone . . . [being] outside Japan felt very far. But now it's very close and more easy to travel. [I'm] enjoying myself more."
But as much fun as she's having these days, Date thinks she'll be pulling the plug on her second career a little early as well.
"I think I won't have any problem in my physical strength over the next five years," she said after winning in Seoul. "But I'm married... I have to have kids and have a lot of things to do."