Tennis Focus On

THE CURIOUS CASE OF KIMIKO DATE

In 1970, when in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, Kimiko Date was born, veterans of the tour such as the Williams sisters, Li Na, Tamarine Tanasugarn, just to name a few, were yet to be “contemplated”; and when the likes of Eugenie Bouchard, Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh, three that are considered among the greatest promises of this sport, were born Kimiko-san had already by far exceeded the twenty years of age. Indeed, one can say that when the Swiss and Croatian saw the light for the first time, in 1997, the Japanese had already decided to retire, unless she reconsidered twelve years later to start to play again, at the age of thirty-seven years: in 2002, the same year in which Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh started the elementary school.

When it comes to tennis very often we tend to conclude that reached a certain age, a player cannot have much more to give. It’s a simplistic conclusion, as if to say “you’re gone, another one is coming to take your place”. Fortunately there are those who do not agree with this, and Kimiko Date-Krumm knows something about it. But, what does it mean that at a certain age you do not really have anything more to give? In an environment where you have to deal with the expectations of thousands of experts (many of these often improvised) and millions of fans, it’s hard to admit, first of all to ourselves, that in the end what matters is what we have inside our mind. While all around people are scrambling not only to make us questions but to give us even the answers, to suggest when it is or is not the best time to leave , what really matters is only what we want. “Ichinen iwa homo toosu”, says a Japanese proverb. Willpower also runs through the rocks. That’s what Kimiko must have had in her mind throughout her career. She must have had this in her mind back in 1988, when she took her first steps in the ITF circuit. She must have had this in her mind in the following year, when at nineteen years she reached the fourth round in Melbourne, defeated only by the Czech Helena Sukova , five years older than her and that ended her career with four Grand Slam finals and fifteen Slam titles in doubles. She  must have had that proverb in mind when she won her first Japan Open in 1992. Or when she defeated two years later Conchita Martinez in Melbourne, thus reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal. And she must have thought it in 2008, when she announced her return to tennis.

Another Japanese proverb says Koubou fude or erabazu: “A good calligrapher does not choose his brushes”. In fact, it was not little Kimiko’s choice to use the right hand rather than the left, despite being born left-handed. One thing that to many would have been difficult, but that does not seem to ever been a burden to her. “It’s a Japanese custom. When I was a child, everything I did, from writing to eating, my parents tried to make me do it with the right hand. You see, when we write on paper, we write from the right hand side at the top, not from left to right as you Westerners do. This  is why we need to always use the right hand. When I first started playing tennis at six I took the racket and I started to look at others simply copying what they were doing. Most used their right hand, and so  did I. I don’t know for how long my coach has not realized that I was actually left-handed”. An obvious choice then, to which the Japanese never did opposition.

When in November 13, 1995 Kimiko reached her best ranking, now fixed at N°4, that was the exact moment in which the then 25 years old from Kyoto had made history. After reaching the top 10, earned in the previous year, for the first time an Asian tennis player reached and exceeded the top 5 in the WTA rankings. After three Grand Slam semi-finals (in the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon) and two quarter-finals (at the U.S. Open) all achieved between 1994 and 1996, and an historic best ranking, the decision to leave tennis. Her last match was a loss to Martina Hingis, at the WTA Championships in 1996. Her choice might have seemed to many unexpected, but it was well thought out. Simply, Kimiko did not seem to enjoy tennis life anymore. And she was tired. The success achieved so far was not enough to make her change her mind. Katte kabuto no o shimeyo. “Right after you’ve won, you have to hold the armor”, she must have thought; but this time, this armor was maybe too heavy to carry, even for a twenty-six years old.

During the years in which the tour had to go on without her, Kimiko marries the German pilot Michael Krumm, works as a coach, is committed to assisting in countries such as Bangladesh, Malawi and many others, and also works as a commentator for Japanese TV during the Grand Slam tournaments. After some time, however, she begins to think that, perhaps, a return to competition could be fine for her. “When I watched  tennis on TV a few years after my retirement I began to say: Yes , tennis is really a good sport, especially for women. When I was younger I felt too much pressure so I could not really enjoy it, and when I quit I had no intention to start over again. Then I played a few exhibition matches, and started to practise. My husband urged me to continue. He would always say “Why do not you play again? That would be great. Although starting from the qualification rounds, it does not matter. So many people dream of playing in a Grand Slam, but not many are able to do so, then you should take the opportunity”. At that point I said OK, let’s do it”.

In 1970, when in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, Kimiko Date was born, veterans of the tour such as the Williams sisters, Li Na, Tamarine Tanasugarn, just to name a few, were yet to be “contemplated”; and when the likes of Eugenie Bouchard, Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh, three that are considered among the greatest promises of this sport, were born Kimiko-san had already by far exceeded the twenty years of age. Indeed, one can say that when the Swiss and Croatian saw the light for the first time, in 1997, the Japanese had already decided to retire, unless she reconsidered twelve years later to start to play again, at the age of thirty-seven years: in 2002, the same year in which Belinda Bencic and Ana Konjuh started the elementary school.

When it comes to tennis very often we tend to conclude that reached a certain age, a player cannot have much more to give. It’s a simplistic conclusion, as if to say “you’re gone, another one is coming to take your place”. Fortunately there are those who do not agree with this, and Kimiko Date-Krumm knows something about it. But, what does it mean that at a certain age you do not really have anything more to give? In an environment where you have to deal with the expectations of thousands of experts (many of these often improvised) and millions of fans, it’s hard to admit, first of all to ourselves, that in the end what matters is what we have inside our mind. While all around people are scrambling not only to make us questions but to give us even the answers, to suggest when it is or is not the best time to leave , what really matters is only what we want. “Ichinen iwa homo toosu”, says a Japanese proverb. Willpower also runs through the rocks. That’s what Kimiko must have had in her mind throughout her career. She must have had this in her mind back in 1988, when she took her first steps in the ITF circuit. She must have had this in her mind in the following year, when at nineteen years she reached the fourth round in Melbourne, defeated only by the Czech Helena Sukova , five years older than her and that ended her career with four Grand Slam finals and fifteen Slam titles in doubles. She  must have had that proverb in mind when she won her first Japan Open in 1992. Or when she defeated two years later Conchita Martinez in Melbourne, thus reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal. And she must have thought it in 2008, when she announced her return to tennis.

Another Japanese proverb says Koubou fude or erabazu: “A good calligrapher does not choose his brushes”. In fact, it was not little Kimiko’s choice to use the right hand rather than the left, despite being born left-handed. One thing that to many would have been difficult, but that does not seem to ever been a burden to her. “It’s a Japanese custom. When I was a child, everything I did, from writing to eating, my parents tried to make me do it with the right hand. You see, when we write on paper, we write from the right hand side at the top, not from left to right as you Westerners do. This  is why we need to always use the right hand. When I first started playing tennis at six I took the racket and I started to look at others simply copying what they were doing. Most used their right hand, and so  did I. I don’t know for how long my coach has not realized that I was actually left-handed”. An obvious choice then, to which the Japanese never did opposition.

When in November 13, 1995 Kimiko reached her best ranking, now fixed at N°4, that was the exact moment in which the then 25 years old from Kyoto had made history. After reaching the top 10, earned in the previous year, for the first time an Asian tennis player reached and exceeded the top 5 in the WTA rankings. After three Grand Slam semi-finals (in the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon) and two quarter-finals (at the U.S. Open) all achieved between 1994 and 1996, and an historic best ranking, the decision to leave tennis. Her last match was a loss to Martina Hingis, at the WTA Championships in 1996. Her choice might have seemed to many unexpected, but it was well thought out. Simply, Kimiko did not seem to enjoy tennis life anymore. And she was tired. The success achieved so far was not enough to make her change her mind. Katte kabuto no o shimeyo. “Right after you’ve won, you have to hold the armor”, she must have thought; but this time, this armor was maybe too heavy to carry, even for a twenty-six years old.

During the years in which the tour had to go on without her, Kimiko marries the German pilot Michael Krumm, works as a coach, is committed to assisting in countries such as Bangladesh, Malawi and many others, and also works as a commentator for Japanese TV during the Grand Slam tournaments. After some time, however, she begins to think that, perhaps, a return to competition could be fine for her. “When I watched  tennis on TV a few years after my retirement I began to say: Yes , tennis is really a good sport, especially for women. When I was younger I felt too much pressure so I could not really enjoy it, and when I quit I had no intention to start over again. Then I played a few exhibition matches, and started to practise. My husband urged me to continue. He would always say “Why do not you play again? That would be great. Although starting from the qualification rounds, it does not matter. So many people dream of playing in a Grand Slam, but not many are able to do so, then you should take the opportunity”. At that point I said OK, let’s do it”.

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