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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Sep 30, 2009

9/30/2009 12:00:00 AM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

Sep 30, 2009

This week's Sweet Spot is dedicated to Japan's quatrogenerian Kimiko Date Krumm. As you're probably well aware, by spanking all those youngins last week en route to hoisting the Seoul trophy (Kleybanova! Hantuchova! Kirilenko! Medina Garrigues!), the pushing-40-year-old became the second oldest woman to win a tour title in Open Era history, behind only Billie Jean King. And that's a stunning, spectacular, insanely inspiring accomplishment.

But that's not why this column is dedicated to her.

Kimiko returned in April of 2008, and between then and last week she was 0 and 8 in main draw matches. And not just any 0 and 8. 38-year-old woman trying to compete with 19-year-old baselining Bollettieri babes 0 and 8. Hopping on planes to the four corners of the earth with your grocery money because you haven't scored any prizemoney in 12 years 0 and 8. Hearing the stir of echoes of glory days gone by each and every time that last winner flies past you 0 and 8. Answering the same questions from the media after each and every match: Why on earth are you doing this? That 0 and 8.

There are a lot of candles
on that cake

It was this time last year when Kimiko made her first stab at a tour level event, fighting her way through Tokyo qualifying. She made it to the last round before getting crushed 1 and 1 by Aleksandra Wozniak. KDK could smile and say she was just feeling her way back into the tour, but this is a woman who won this event. Granted, back in 1995, but it still had to make her question. Does she really have this in her?

A wild card for the Japan Open gave her her first taste of a main draw. She'd won the event four times in the past. This time she'd lose in straight sets, to Shahar Pe'er. "It's not easy to fill the blank of 11 years and a half," she said. "Today's loss left me with a mixed feeling. Of course I was disappointed, but I'm going to take it positively."

It's a speech she'd give again, in Aukland in '09 after losing to Jill Craybas in straights. And again, at the Australian Open, after a tough 8-6 in the third loss to Kaia Kenepi. The difference this time was she didn't need a wild card. She'd earned her spot in the main draw as a qualifier. After 38 years, she was making baby steps all over again.

Next came Pattaya City. And another first round loss. Then Estoril. Another loss. Recovery was getting harder and harder, certainly physically. Kimiko was no spring chicken. These peppy little girls could run for days. And the questions kept coming from reporters in the face of defeat after defeat. Why?

The questions got louder after she lost in qualifying at the French, forced to retire in the first round when her body let her down. Her ego may have been wounded more. But she just had to keep going.

She received a wild card into Wimbledon, and she did what she does best. Attack. She took the first set from 9 seed Caroline Wozniacki, a young gun who wasn't even born when Kimiko played her first match at the All England Club. And she put a scare into the Dane. But as the match wore on Kimiko just couldn't keep her energy up in the face of Caroline's baseline onslaught. Date was, and continued to be, the feel good story in the stands and in the press room. But by the end of the match, she looked her age. Another first round loss. Another round of questions.

How popular she is was on full display in Los Angeles. She'd made it through qualifying again and was on a rinky dink back court taking on yet another kid with a cannon arm, dynamo Sabine Lisicki. Late in the third, she had the German two points from bounced. Two points from her first main draw win. And the entire crowd was going nuts for her. My absolute best memory from L.A. this year is seeing Ai Sugiyama letting her practice court go empty across the way so she could watch Kimiko finish this match. Relive her glory. The smile on Ai's face (and you know that smile) was so big, so joyous, it gave me goose bumps. The crowd roared with every point. And roared even when she lost 7-5 in the third.

"I know people think it's crazy," she said afterward. "But I'm enjoying a lot." She even joked that instead of asking their opponents their ages, she asks how old their mothers are because she can better relate to them. Still, another first round main draw loss. Number seven.

Number eight would not come at the US Open, which she would again fall in qualifying in, but in Guangzhou.

And then a funny thing happened. In Seoul, she won her first round match. And then she won another. And then another. And then another. And then another. Kimiko Date Krumm won a tour title! The world press leaped on the story of this former champ who came back twice the age of her opponents to perform such an incredible feat, and deservedly so. But for me the story isn't her 39 years, just the last one and a half of them.

You can be lazy like everyone else and say "what does it say about the rest of the tour if some old broad can come back and win a title?" Or you can take a closer look and smile a big, joyous Sugiyama smile at what dogged perseverance can get you. Rather than hold Kimiko up as an example of what older players can do, or those who come back to the game can do, hold her up as an example to any player who's really, truly struggling. Who can't win despite their talent and resumes. The Nicole Vaidisovas of the world. The Ernests Gulbises. They know from getting the same sad questions asked of them tournament after tournament. Let them take something from Kimiko, who showed us that if you really put yourself out there for the love of the game, maybe, just maybe, the game will love you back.

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Kimiko's not on Twitter, but I am! Follow me at twitter.com/JamesLaRosa.