One for the Ages

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Age hasn't slowed down 45-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm, the oldest player on the WTA tour. (AP)

Throughout November and December, we'll be highlighting the true heroes of tennis with our annual celebration of the gifted, the courageous, the inspired and the inspiring. You can read about heroes we've honored previously here.


I am well aware that these days, most of my opponents are young enough to be my daughters. It’s crazy. But once I get onto the court for a match, it never crosses my mind. After all, my opponents are my peers, my competitors.


When I first came back to pro tennis, I never imagined I’d still be playing eight years later. But at 45, I keep going because I love the sport, and I still have the opportunity to play at the WTA level. 

I don’t give up because I know I am still capable of great moments, like my victory over Sabine Lisicki in Stanford this summer. In that match, I was down 1–6, 1–4, but was able to fight back against a powerful and accomplished player. Next time I am facing defeat, I will remember that comeback.

I continue to play because, well, I never have been very good at sitting still.

I grew up in a very active family—vacations were always spent outside at the mountains or the beach, and we were always playing sports together. When I was in elementary school, my parents joined a tennis club for the first time. After school, while my older brother and sister were off playing with their friends, I’d sit at the tennis club with nothing to do, just watching them play. 

But since I always needed to be doing something, one day I picked up a racquet and started to compete against other members. I was only 6 years old, and right away, I was good. For a long time I just played for fun, but I decided to make tennis my living when I was 17 and began having success at tournaments in Japan. Once I turned pro in 1989, my ranking rose very quickly. 

I always loved to play in front of big crowds in big stadiums, and I especially loved playing against Steffi Graf—we brought out the best in one another. However, I didn’t enjoy the WTA tour during my first career. Everything was so different. There was no Internet and no mobile phones, and there weren’t many Japanese athletes, even outside of tennis. All of the Japanese media attention was focused on me. 

I was so young, and the pressure was too much for me. I couldn’t understand English very well, and I was always lonely. I knew that if I wanted to continue to challenge the top players and win major titles, I needed to work harder. But I just didn’t have the motivation anymore. 

In 1996, I decided to retire from tennis and just enjoy my life. I spent time with my family and friends, went to cooking school, ran a marathon and did many fun things. I never felt like I missed tennis, even though after I got married in 2001 my husband would always say, “Why do you not play anymore? You are still fit, still young, and competition is good for your life.” I always told him, “No, no, no, my career is finished. I’m enjoying my life. It’s enough.”

For almost a decade I barely picked up a tennis racquet, only occasionally hitting with my husband, maybe once every six months. But in 2007, I committed to playing in an exhibition match in Japan with Graf and Martina Navratilova the following spring. I knew I needed to really work hard in order to make it through a match with them, so I dedicated myself to practice in the six months leading up to it. It was very difficult. I had to re-learn everything, even how to follow the ball with my eyes. But I did enjoy it.

Slowly, my mind-set started to change. I thought that maybe, if the exhibition went well, that I would enter the All-Japan Tennis Championships in November. So, after the exo in March, I decided to pass the time by entering some ITF tournaments in Japan. In my first one, I made it through qualifying and all the way to the final. 

By the time I made it to the All-Japan Tennis Championships, my goal was no longer just to play—I wanted to win the whole thing. And I did, in singles and in doubles. At the end of 2008, my ranking was already high enough that I was able to make it into Australian Open qualifying. My husband said, “You must go.” I haven’t missed a major since.

Tennis today is so different from how it was during my first career. It’s so much more physical, and everyone hits with more power. We used to have more time during rallies, but now, on the WTA level, I have to be fully prepared and focused for every ball. I don’t have big muscles and I’m not very tall, so I have to mix it up. I use slices, short balls and come to the net to finish points. 

Fitness is a challenge too. If I do too much, my body breaks down. But if I don’t do enough, I cannot keep up with the younger players. So I’m always thinking about balance. I do a lot of functional training—I use bands instead of big weights, and focus on core training and intervals. Recovery is the toughest part. During my first career, bouncing back was easy—I just needed one night of sleep, and the next day I was as good as new. 

These days, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Right after a match, I drink protein drinks, stretch and cool down. Then I take hot baths with Epsom salts—in Japan, everybody takes a hot bath almost every day, and I really enjoy them. I then try and sleep as much as possible; I find that when I am competing, I need at least nine hours of sleep a night.

Overall, though, life on tour is much easier and more enjoyable than it was during my first career. Even though my husband doesn’t travel with me—like me, he’s not good at just sitting around and watching—the Internet makes it so simple to stay in touch. There are also more Japanese players to hang out with—I always eat meals with Kei Nishikori when we’re at the same tournaments—and I am so much more relaxed.

When I was young and on the tour, losing felt like the end of the world. There was so much disappointment almost every week. Now, I am happy just to play. In fact, even though I have many great victories in my new career, my favorite memory is my match against Venus Williams in the second round of Wimbledon in 2011. I lost the match 6–7 (6), 6–3, 8–6, but it was a big, big moment in my career. I kept coming to the net, point after point, and it was working against a five-time Wimbledon champion. The roof on Centre Court was closed, the crowd was cheering me on, and I used 100 percent of my game and my fight. It was very emotional.

In this second career, I can appreciate losses, but I can’t stand not being healthy enough to compete. I hate injuries, and I don’t want an injury to end my career. So every time I get injured, I’m even more motivated than usual to fix my body and get back onto the court and physically give it my all.

I love this sport. We get to travel everywhere, and we have a wonderful chance to study and see so many things. So even if I cannot win, I still love to play tennis, and I still want to compete for as long as I can. And really, age is just a number.


Kimiko Date-Krumm made her pro debut in 1989. Before retiring in 1996, she made three Grand Slam semifinals, rose to No. 4 in the world and defeated legends such as Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. At age 37, Date-Krumm came out of retirement, climbing as high as No. 46 in the world and winning one WTA singles title, nine ITF singles titles and five WTA doubles titles. Even though Date-Krumm plays on a tour in which more than half of the Top 100 players were not even born when she began her career, she continues to demonstrate perseverance, mettle and a passion for the sport.

 

 

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