Friday, July 29, 2011

Date-Krumm makes great return

   STANFORD — When Kimiko Date-Krumm retired from professional tennis in 1996, Bill Clinton had just defeated Bob Dole to earn his second term as president of the United States. Twitter was something birds did, and Steffi Graf was the No. 1 player in the world and single with no children.
   When Date-Krumm returned 12 years later, Hillary Clinton was running for president, Twitter was gaining popularity as a social neworking and microblogging service, and Graf was an International Tennis Hall of Famer and married with 6- and 4-year-old kids.
   Date-Krumm is to comebacks what John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are to marathon matches. Now 40, virtually unheard of for a pro tennis player, the Japanese veteran is ranked 52nd in the world. The next oldest player in the top 100 is another Asian, 34-year-old Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand at No. 79.
   In her first life on the pro tour, Date-Krumm climbed to No. 4, reached the semifinals once each at Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open, and twice advanced to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. But by 26, she was burned out.
  "It was difficult on the tour," Date-Krumm said in halting English after losing to eighth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-2, 7-6 (7) Monday night in the first round of the Bank of The West Classic. "I felt stress from the Japanese media. It was the first time there was a top-10 player (from Japan), and there were not so many other (top) athletes. Now, there's baseball (Japanese players in the United States) and soccer. There was much media (attention on) me.
   "There were no (laptops) or mobile phones. I was always traveling far from Japan. I couldn't enjoy the tour."
   Date-Krumm enjoyed her retirement, working on projects, swimming, jogging, playing tennis with friends for fun, doing TV commentary at Grand Slam tournaments, working for a fashion magazine and getting engaged in 2000. She ran the 2004 London Marathon in 3 hours, 30 minutes. But her husband, German race car driver Michael Krumm, pleaded with her to return to the tour.
   "He likes sports, and we play(ed) tennis together," Date-Krumm said. "He always push me: 'Why don't you play (on the tour again)? I said, 'I don't want to. I was already successful. Enough.' He said, 'Please, I don't see your serious game.' I said, 'No, no, no' for many years."
   After playing an exhibition with Martina Navratilova and Graf in Tokyo, though, Date-Krumm decided to start training.
   "Then I start to enjoy tennis," she said. "At that time, I think about staying in Japan, but now I'm back on the WTA Tour."    
   Since returning, Date Krumm has become the:
    —Oldest player at 39 years, 7 months to beat a top-10 star with her first-round victory over Dinara Safina in the first round of last year's French Open. Date-Krumm surpassed that by beating Samantha Stosur in the quarterfinals at Osaka, Japan, at 40 years, 17 days in 2010.
    —Second-oldest player at 38 years, 11 months to win a WTA title when she triumphed at Seoul in 2009. Billie Jean King won at Birmingham, England, in 1983 at 39 years, 7 months.
    —Oldest player to rank in the top 50 since King was No.22 at age 40 in 1984. Date-Krumm rose from No. 54 to No. 50 last August.
   Date-Krumm, only 5-foot-4 and 117 pounds, plays as if she comes from another era, which she does. She uses touch and sharp angles and often charges the net. Naturally left-handed, she learned to play right-handed to follow Japanese custom. Her forehand, in fact, is unorthodox and appears stiff. Rather than using a customary looping backswing, she takes her racket straight back.
   In possibly the match of the year, Date-Krumm extended Venus Williams to 6-7 (6), 6-3, 8-6 last month in the second round at Wimbledon.
   "I've never played anyone who hits the ball like that," Williams, 31, told reporters afterward. "Nobody today comes to the net like she does. They don't play quirky. I thought she played unbelievable today, nowhere near her age."
   After Wimbledon, Date-Krumm returned to Japan and hit with juniors at a tournament in the area devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in March. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people.
   "Day by day, things are getting better," said Date-Krumm, who has raised or donated $64,000 for recovery efforts. "It's difficult for them to laugh. They were so happy to play with me. People don't have a house or clothes. It takes a long time (to recover)."
   Date-Krumm hopes her exploits on the pro tour at 40 inspire her country, much as the Japanese women's soccer team did with its recent Women's World Cup championship.
   "I believe sports has big power," she said. "During the clay-court season (in the spring), I lose many times, but I don't give up. Then I almost beat Venus. If you don't give up, maybe the light is coming."

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