LONDON, June 25 (Reuters) - When Kimiko Date-Krumm first retired from tennis in 1996, her first-round opponent at this year’s Wimbledon was one year old.
On Tuesday, the diminutive Japanese player made light of the longevity statistics, sailing through to the next round by beating Germany’s Carina Witthoeft 6-0 6-2.
“I have a lot of passion. I like challenge because it is not easy for my age,” said the 42-year-old who took a 12-year break from the sport but missed it too much and just had to come back.
For her, tennis is not just a power game. Winning is all about mental agility. That way you can outfox younger opponents.
“We need experience. That’s why it’s not anymore only younger players who can go to the top level,” she said.
It is almost a decade since the giggling 17-year-old Maria Sharapova enchanted Wimbledon fans with her shock victory over Serena Williams. The Russian was the last teenage grand slam winner at the 2006 U.S. Open.
Asked why it was more difficult for teenagers to win the big tournments, Date-Krumm said they had the power but not enough variation in their shots. ”When the ball comes, they just hit it. They don’t use the whole court.
“Now everybody looks the same. Bam, bam, bam. That is why we need more experience,” she said, reflecting on this year’s tournament where 59 of the women players had not even been born when Date-Krumm made her Wimbledon debut in 1989.
She quit at the end of 1996 but after a 12-year gap in which she met and married German racing car driver Michael Krumm, Date-Krumm returned to the sport.
She never thought she would miss the global grind of the tour. “But I love sport, I love tennis. And I was working for TV so I came here for many years doing TV commentary.” she said.
The tennis bug bit her all over again.
“I thought how beautiful tennis is as a sport. Then little bits started changing my mind,” she added. “When I came back, I was enjoying it very much, even when I‘m losing.”
It is not just chateau-bottled wine that improves with age. Date-Krumm has stopped putting pressure on herself. Now she is out there enjoying matches, win or lose. Jaded is not an adjective you would ever use to describe her play today.
In January, she turned back the clock to become the oldest woman to win at the Australian Open. In Paris, she may have won only two games in the French Open against Australian Sam Stosur but she still raised her arms in celebration.
She singled out her husband for praise.
“If I am injured, he understands how difficult the recovery is,” said Date-Krumm, who in her heyday in the mid 1990s reached number four in the world rankings and made the semi-finals at the Australian, French and Wimbledon grand slams.
She first met her husband on a visit to the Le Mans 24-Hours race in 1998. He helps her to stay calm as well as stoking the competitive fires.
Now ranked 84, she said: “My husband is a role model. He is the same age as me and is still trying very hard and still racing.”
Martina Navratilova holds the record for being the oldest winner of a grand slam match in 2004 at the ripe old age of 47 years and 248 days.
Who knows? In another five years, Date-Krumm might be rewriting the record books if she still keeps having so much fun. (Reporting by Paul Majendie; editing by Ken Ferris)