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At 40, Krumm Approaches Date With Tennis History

Sep 28, 2010 – 5:20 PM
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Greg Couch

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Maria Sharapova congratulates Date Krumm

Let's call it the Al Bundy Complex. That has to be what makes so many of us feel good about watching these old-timers do well in sports. How many of us finished our sports heyday in high school?

I know I can still do it. I sit around day after day on my recliner thinking about it, knowing it. Right?

So on Monday, tennis player Kimiko Date Krumm beat Maria Sharapova in Tokyo. On Tuesday, she turned 40, and beat another top player, 29th ranked Daniela Hantuchova.

"I don't have a secret,'' Date Krumm said.

See? No secret. She quit in her mid-20s, stayed away until her late 30s and wasn't bogged down by marriage and real life one bit. She came back when she felt like it, and here she is, beating Sharapova, who won't turn 40 until 2027.

This week is turning into a tribute to geezer athletes everywhere. George Blanda probably wasn't the first one, but may be the symbol, anyway. He came off the bench as the Raiders' quarterback in his early-to-mid 40s and was still in the NFL as a backup quarterback and kicker until he was 48.

Sharapova will turn 48 in 2035.

Well, Blanda died on Monday, and when he played, he was part spectacle, part testimony to all Average Joes who were going to work every day.

"When people get old," Date Krumm said this spring, "(they) always give up ... to do something else."

If Krumm wins this week's tournament in Tokyo, she will be the first player to win a WTA Tour event in her 40s.

God love these old-athlete stories. Really, they're just middle-aged, of course. But sports is seen as a young-person's thing. So middle-aged is seen as old, if not dead.

How fun it was when George Foreman, at 45, knocked out Michael Moorer to become the heavyweight champ again. In tennis, Jimmy Connors had his last stand at the U.S. Open at 39.

Last year, Tom Watson, at 59, came within one stroke of winning the British Open?

The problem is, while they are great stories at the time, they don't say the best things about the state of their game.

I mean, boxing already had no credibility, and didn't need that message from Foreman to confirm. Golf doesn't move fast enough to make it shocking when a 59-year old does well.
The problem is, while they are great stories at the time, they don't say the best things about the state of their game.

But tennis?

Put it this way: When Date Krumm quit in 1996, she talked about being overwhelmed by Martina Hingis' power. Now, Hingis seems to be flirting with the idea of a comeback, but the reason it won't work is because she is a weak hitter.

See, in the 12 years Date Krumm was gone, tennis became way more physical and powerful. Date Krumm is dinky, just 5-foot-4.

"Yeah, now women's tennis, everybody (is) taller, more powerful, more speedy,'' she said at Wimbledon. "But tennis, in my opinion, is more (about) using the head.''

She moves the ball around, changes paces and spins, opens up the court, uses her quickness.

It's called playing tennis, not smashball.

This is what's damning about Date Krumm's success, which is growing this week. Until now, it has been more of a refreshing curiosity. Now, she's beating top players who are doing well.

Turns out she's one tough woman. But when Date Krumm beat Sharapova, that wasn't just a statement about Date Krumm.

It throws serious doubts into where Sharapova is, and whether she has the mental capacity to be great again. No way a superstar 23-year old tennis player loses to a 40-year old.

Nearly all women on tour play exactly the same style: large women bashing the ball. It's cookie cutter, mindless, and maybe even gutless. Handle their power and they're toast.

A tough counter-puncher, then, comes in and is able to fight them off by using, gulp, strategy.

Kimiko Date KrummHow insulting to today's players that a player from a different generation -- aging included -- has done well today.

Well, Date Krumm quit in the first place because she felt lonesome on tour. She describes her old self as a Japanese woman playing on a tour mostly in the U.S. and Europe, facing Western food she didn't like, not making friends and having difficulty staying connected to people she was close to back home.

During her layoff, she married German race car driver Michael Krumm. He kept trying to get her to attempt a comeback.

Now, she said, she's used to the food, she can stay connected through the Internet and talks to her husband every day on Skype.

"At that time, we don't have computer, we don't have mobile phone and we don't have Skype," she said in the spring. "Now, it's (a) big difference, so I can enjoy the life on the tour."

It's as if three generations went by. And while today's players feel entitled, even as juniors, Date Krumm, a former top-four player, came back grinding her way through the minors, into the qualifying events, onto the big-tour level and now beating Sharapova.

She's not the best player, and won't win majors. But she's not just a cute story anymore. You'd like to think a sport advances over time, not goes backward. But one tough woman is teaching these kids a lesson. They need that lesson every once in a while. Luckily, some fogie is always there.

E-mail me at gregcouch09@aol.com; Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch
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