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‘I like a challenge. Every moment for me, it’s a challenge,’ says Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan. She’s shown in a match against Serena Williams last month. (Sang Tan/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
‘I like a challenge. Every moment for me, it’s a challenge,’ says Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan. She’s shown in a match against Serena Williams last month. (Sang Tan/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Odlum Brown Vancouver Open

Date-Krumm’s comeback proves age is just a number Add to ...

The attention at home was crushing, and the loneliness on the road searing. So, at 26, ranked among the top 10 pro women tennis players in the world, Japan’s Kimiko Date gave it up, retiring in 1996.

A dozen years later, encouraged by her husband, race car driver Michael Krumm, Date-Krumm hesitatingly began a quiet comeback and then, buoyed by early success in smaller tournaments, it became a full-fledged revival.

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The accomplishments piled up including, in 2009, victory at a WTA tournament in Seoul. It was the eighth of her career, which made Date-Krumm, at nearly 39, the second-oldest woman after Billie Jean King to win a top-tier pro tournament.

As Date-Krumm had when she was younger, the crafty 5-foot-4 player employed guile, outsmarting bigger and strong opponents, blitzing across the court with extraordinary quickness and confusing players with her flat shots – using neither topspin nor backspin, an odd anachronism.

Success continued, as she rose into the top 50 in 2010, when she became, at 40, the oldest woman to defeat a top-10 player, but then results flagged, hampered by injuries, cramps and strains, and fell to No. 146 by season’s end last year. In Grand Slam events, Date-Krumm could only get by the first round twice in 17 attempts. She felt old.

Then, after advice from several people, she undertook a new fitness regimen at a Tokyo gym – fewer heavy weights, more functional strength, core strength.

“Every time when I lost in the first round, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe it’s time to stop’ – or I started to think, sometimes,” Date-Krumm said in an interview Monday in Vancouver.

(On Tuesday, she opened play at the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open seeded second on the ITF Women’s Circuit, one rung below the WTA. Date-Krumm defeated 22-year-old Olivia Rogowska of Australia 6-2, 7-5.)

The new physical regimen worked: Now 42, she became the oldest woman to win a round at the Australian Open, and then made the third round; and at Wimbledon, her favourite tournament, she made the third round, the oldest woman to make it that far. Beyond singles, where she is now ranked No. 66, she has won three WTA doubles titles this year, and is ranked No. 35, close to her career-best No. 33, which she reached half-a-time ago, literally, at 21.

Date-Krumm has an easy laugh, a big smile. Asked if she ever feels old, she laughs, “Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes.”

After matches, her body is tired, aches. Some matches put her age in stark relief: at Wimbledon, she faced an 18-year-old in the first round. And, turning 43 in September, this season might be the last, a decision she’ll make when it concludes. But for now, she feels spry, buoyed by competitive fire, and results. “I like a challenge. Every moment for me, it’s a challenge.”

In the mid-1990s, Date-Krumm was one of Japan’s few sports celebrities, some years before the country had many others in numerous sports to fete and obsess over. She rose as high as No. 4 in the world, reaching the semi-finals of the French Open, a first for any Japanese woman, and the semis of Wimbledon. Off the court, she drew piles of endorsements, and was dating a famous actor, Kiichi Nakai.

It became too much. She dreaded going on the road, alone and disconnected from home, but home was no comfort either, the constant grind of celebrity, paparazzi.

“It was so stressful for me, even when I don’t play tennis,” she said. “It was difficult to enjoy myself.”

Retirement offered a retreat, and she enjoyed a quiet, normal life. She married in 2001. She did commentary during Grand Slams for Japanese television but otherwise did not obsess over the game. She ran most days – and, in 2004, completed the London Marathon in less than 3 1/2 hours. For years, she parried her husband’s encouragement to play pro tennis again before eventually relenting as she trained for an exhibition match and then pushed on back into the pro game.

At Wimbledon this year, when Date-Krumm defeated 18-year-old Carina Witthoeft of Germany 6-0, 6-2 in the first round, she eventually came up against world No. 1 Serena Williams in the third, losing 6-2, 6-0. Before the match, Williams remembered watching Date-Krumm on television when she was growing up. Williams remarked on Date-Krumm’s difficult game to play against.

“Doesn’t matter how hard you hit it, she sees the ball and gets it back,” the American star said. “She has great hands, a wonderful great volley … and she plays really flat, too, so the ball stays really low.”

After Date-Krumm defeated Witthoeft, the veteran reflected on a game that has changed, and her rare place in it: “Tennis is not only power, not only speed, not only for young players.”

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

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