The age-is-just-a-number cliche got a nice boost Monday at the U.S. Open tennis tournament.
Venus Williams, 34, struggled through a three-set match to beat Kimiko Date-Krumm, soon to be 44.
No oxygen masks were needed. The players did not come out pushing walkers. There was no mandatory medical break so they could take their meds.
Williams won, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, and it was no walk in the nursing home park.
It was a David-and-Goliath mismatch that nearly had a David-and-Goliath outcome. You could almost sense every 40-and-over club player watching on TV, clenching fists in encouragement at every Date-Krumm comeback, every darting little sprint to another unlikely forehand or backhand winner.
It wasn’t that they’d want to root against Williams, one of the few current title-competitive U.S. players on tour. It was just that, Date-Krumm’s every success validated their own wishful fountain of youth.
In a massive 22,500-seat stadium, on a bright and stifling hot New York day, the Japanese veteran was a featherweight taking on Mike Tyson.
She weighs 117 pounds and stands 5 feet 4. In the red corner, Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam champion and a titlist here in 2000 and 2001, went 6-1 and 160. The Nevada State Athletic Commission would not have allowed this.
Williams did the best job of summing up the phenomenon that is Date-Krumm. Asked whether she ever felt old out there, she said, “Not yet,” and quickly added, “According to Kimiko, I have another decade.”
Date-Krumm might have the same, although she said that she thinks about retiring a lot after losses and that her coach told her he doesn’t want to hear her talking retirement.
She said she goes to the gym every day, sleeps a lot and enjoys an occasional glass of red wine.
“I have to enjoy my life outside of tennis, too,” she said.
She married an older man, German race driver Michael Krumm. He turned 44 on March 19. She’ll be 43 until Sept. 28.
They live in Tokyo. From there, he has been able to compete successfully both in Germany and Japan. He is not merely a back-in-the-pack stroker. He has won the FIA GTI championship, which sounds impressive and probably is, and has finished as high as third in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Date’s pro tennis career has actually been shorter than Williams’. She began in 1988 and built to a No. 4 world ranking in 1995, with career-best semifinal results at the Australian Open ('94), French Open ('95) and Wimbledon ('96). Then she retired after ’96 and didn’t return until 2009, where she got her ranking back into the top 100 and now carries a No. 88 listing.
That’s 15 years of pro tennis. Williams has taken no pauses in her career and is in her 20th season.
Date-Krumm won the first set, and it was clearly the proverbial giant trying to swat the gnat. Since Jimmy Connors retired, almost nobody has hit the ball as flat as Date-Krumm. She doesn’t so much stroke shots as punch them. Her game is made, although not purposely, to disrupt and discombobulate all the new modern rocket-science rackets and bionic strings engineered so that muscular 25-year-olds can swing all out on every shot and keep the ball in the court.
In the first set, Williams kept slugging the ball into the net or long.
“She’s a tricky player,” Williams said. “The way she hits the ball is like nobody else on the tour.”
That means fewer predictable bounces, minimal spin and constant headaches. Williams’ first serves were consistently at 110-plus mph, Date-Krumm’s at 85-plus. If Date-Krumm were a baseball pitcher, her bread and butter would be the change-up.
“The younger players (which pretty much covers the entire tour), don’t like my ball,” Date-Krumm said.
To her credit, Williams figured it out.
“She slowed it down in the second set, went for less on her shots,” Date-Krumm said.
Still, even when Williams built her lead to 5-0 in the third set, the gnat remained a pest. Date-Krumm got it back to 3-5 on her serve and even had ad-in after a 25-stroke baseline rally that ended when Williams, almost out of desperation, yanked a backhand into the net.
Then Date-Krumm netted a backhand and allowed Williams to get to her first match point when a wide-open backhand volley looped wide. The gnat was out of buzz. Williams returned deep, and Date-Krumm netted her backhand response.
The match clock showed 2 hours 1 minute. They came to the net, shook hands and walked off.
Both under their own power.