43-year old Kimiko Date-Krumm is currently the 54th best women’s tennis player in the world - ranked higher than Heather Watson, Yanina Wickmayer, and Julia Goerges - players all born after her first year on tour in 1988.
Kimiko Date was one of the first players I rooted for in tennis. In a sport dominated by women who all looked alike, I gravitated toward the diminutive Japanese underdog, a solid top-10 player, but one who was never able to break through in the big moments against the top ballers. She retired 4 days shy of her 26th birthday in 1996, having reached 3 Slam quarter-finals and 3 semi-finals. Hers was a pioneering career for Japanese tennis and a perfectly respectable one overall, having reached a career high ranking of #4 in 1995.
Fast-forward 12 years and I discover that there’s a Kimiko Date-Krumm playing on the outskirts of the tennis circuit. The first thing that came to mind was this had to be a hyphenated offspring of the Kimiko I once loved. Incredulously, this was the same Kimiko. Having spent 12 years off the tour, gotten married to a German race-car driver - she was making an unprecedented return to the sport in which she was once a top player more than a decade before.
The second coming of Kimiko Date hasn’t been nearly as successful. The game is different now. Players are hybrid versions of the ones she first competed against - more powerful, and the greater depth on tour means any of the top women can fall on any given day. Still, 5 years after her return, Date-Krumm finds herself ranked high enough to gain direct entry into Grand Slams.
At 43, Date-Krumm is a full 10 years older than the next oldest players ranked inside the top-100, Venus Williams and Francesca Schiavone. Born in 1970, Kimiko is the only player born in the 70s ranked inside the top-100. While it is true that the game is no longer the domain of teen prodigies and players take much longer to develop now than in the 90s, Date-Krumm’s achievement is still jaw-dropping.
She often competes against women more than half her age with a game that belongs to a different era. Her impeccable fitness is the biggest key to success at such an advanced age - she’s playing against two younger generations, arguably making her the grandmother of the WTA. She’s managed to stay healthy while playing a full singles and doubles schedule. How her body has held up to the rigours of the tour is beyond comprehension.
After finishing the 2012 season ranked 146, I accepted that Kimiko 2.0’s best was almost certainly behind her. Another year older and faced with the grind of going through qualifying to get into tournaments, I assumed she didn’t have the means to make another climb up the rankings. And so it’s doubly astounding that she has managed to surge all the way to 54 after threatening to plummet out of the top-200.
I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to fully understand the magnitude of what Date-Krumm has done and is still doing. She’s managed a second perfectly respectable career on the WTA tour, and is still playing some 25 years after her first season. Kimiko should change the way we view sporting careers - too often fans get into the business of pontificating about when a player should retire. Date-Krumm and Venus Williams show that there is more to sport than wins and losses.
Sure, there’s the gratification that we as fans receive from the on-court exploits of our favourites. When that success fades, we must resist the urge to cast them aside as past their expiration date. Instead, there needs to be a nuanced contextualization of what their performances represent. Athletes can carve out new and different niches for themselves that warrant just as much adulation as when we celebrate major victories. Date-Krumm’s second career is a marvel that compels us to appreciate an equally impressive kind of triumph, one of spirit and perseverance.