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For Kimiko Date Krumm, it’s 40-love at Japan Open
When Kimiko Date Krumm was one of the top players in the world in the mid 1990s, mothers across Japan were hoping their infants would become pro tennis players.
Some of those babies, such as Ayumi Morita, 20, are now on the pro tour. But so is Date Krumm, who turned 40 this week at the Japan Open in Tokyo. Playing at 40 in a sport dominated by teenagers and women in their early 20s is an amazing feat — only American tennis legend Billie Jean King can match it.
“I don’t have a secret, I just enjoy playing tennis, and I have more experience than the younger girls,” Date Krumm said after winning a second round match at the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo on her birthday on Tuesday. “Now I have started my forties with a victory and this will be a great memory for me. I’m trying not to put any pressure on myself in my forties, so I just enjoy playing tennis,” Date Krumm said. She didn’t have to travel far, since she lives in Tokyo with husband Michael Krumm, a German race car driver who she married in 2001.
Date Krumm is beating women nearly half her age, including a victory this week over former world number one and winner of last years’s TPPO, Maria Sharapova, age 23. “It’s incredible,” said Sharapova. “It just shows you how she has stayed in such great shape while away from the game.”
Life on the world circuit at 19
Like many left-handed Japanese, Date Krumm was encouraged to play with her right hand at an early age. The switch made her forehand backswing an unusually short and efficient weapon. Raised in Kyoto, she quickly jumped from the Sonoda high school team to winning events at age 19 on the world tour.
Arguably the most famous female athlete ever from Japan, Date Krumm has won the Japan Open four times, and consistently reached the quarters or semi-finals of Grand Slam events, sparking a tennis boom among Japanese schoolgirls that continues to this day. But only a few months after reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1996, she quit the pro tour at 26, a typical retirement age in the sport.
Philanthropy and marathons
Burned out from years of relentless touring and hitting millions of fuzzy yellow balls, Date Krumm dabbled in other pursuits, including funding a school in Laos, and running the 2004 London Marathon in a respectable 3 hours and 30 minutes.
After beating all-time greats Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova at a friendly exhibition in 2007, however, Date Krumm got the outrageous idea of turning pro again, as a way to mentor a younger generation of players. Date Krumm beat top-ranked players to win the Korean Open in 2009, and has since cracked the world top 50 rankings.
After a 12-year layoff, she suddenly can’t get enough tennis, playing singles and doubles matches — with Ayumi Morita — on a tour with few days off. While she admits that her body doesn’t bounce back as fast as it did 20 years ago, her maturity gives her an advantage over moodier young players.
“I had a 12-year break and learned many things and watched tennis from the outside while I was working in television,” she said. “So now I know when to be calm, even when I’m losing. I can always put a bad point behind me and focus on the next point. I couldn’t do that when I was younger.”
At press conferences after matches at the Ariake tennis center in Odaiba, a large contingent of Japanese journalists continually inquire about Date Krumm’s health, as if she’s a senior citizen on the verge of keeling over.
“At my age, I often wake up before the alarm clock, so I’m not always getting enough sleep. But I didn’t feel too bad today, for a 40-year-old,” she said after her second round win on Tuesday.
Asked about her health after her third round loss on Wednesday, she said, “This morning I felt a little bit tired in my body, of course! It’s not easy to play the best performance every day.
“Every day I try many things after the match. I drink a lot of liquids and do a lot of stretching. When I wake up, some days are good and some days very bad. Every time I go to the physio room they have a joke about how long I spend on court.”
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