The Ariake Tennis Forest Park in Tokyo was all lit up with the dimpled smile of Kimiko Date-Krumm as much as it warmed my heart yesterday. The Japanese, former World No. 4 did a swan song of her brilliant career as a professional tennis player at the Japan Women's Open.
Not every ending has to be flawless or end on a song. We saw the fastest living human on earth, Usain Bolt bowing out last month succumbing to pain and luck too.
It can be natural for athletes to not win it always. What matters is that they have won hearts and etched their names on the pillars of time. The Japanese lost her very last match but then she's already a winner for her numerous fans. Being an ageless wonder on the tour, yes she is 46 years and that, in itself was a glorious crown to wear.
Having announced her retirement formally a few days ago, Date wanted to put her best foot forward at the Japan Open.
The only reason Kimiko chose to play the tournament in Tokyo was because she wanted to do the final bow in front of her home fans who were so anxious to give the athlete a fitting farewell. It was the reason why she pleaded for a wild card entry which was so kindly granted to her. The loss to Aleksandra Krunic barely mattered that moment.
Her career spanning almost 17 years including those 12 years when she was away, has given us hundreds of stories that can be taken out from the books of inspiration. The delicate lines on her face conspicuous as she kept smiling even with a choke in her heart is a fine example of a true champion. Afterall a farewell is never easy on the heart for an athlete whose only world revolves around the sport. Defying odds and age, Kimiko finally did that last thing she never was used to - quit.
"There's a part of me that says I shouldn't go on, and another part of me that says I might still have a chance. But I've always given 100 percent like any athlete should, and I have no regrets," said Kimiko.
While most tennis players are lucky to have one fantastic career. Date-Krumm, who retired while still inside the Top 10 and took a 12-year hiatus, has been blessed with two.
In the era of the 1990s when Hideo Nomo in baseball and Ayako Okamoto were the only Japanese competing at the International circuits, Kimiko Date was a major pride of Japan scaling athletic peaks in the world of Women's Tennis.
At an age of 46, where ordinary mortals like me wake up to knee aches and stiff shoulders, champions like these keep giving their best to the world of sport. It is this reason that we place them on an altar and idolise them silently while looking up.
Battling with a recurring pain in her shoulders and knee, Kimiko never paid heed to the doctors who perpetually kept pleading her to step back. Her decision to return to the court to compete against players young enough to be her daughters after retiring once in 1996 stands testimony to the fact that "giving up" has never been her thing. How else can one explain a comeback after almost 12 years, could reap fruits that could be relished forever?
Kimiko was enjoying her life and marriage after her first retirement. But she confessed that she loved the sport, the challenges inspired her always. It was her husband, German racing driver Michael Krumm who kept telling her to try playing one more time. Seven years after heeding his advice, Kimiko Date-Krumm has been a constant source of inspiration to her peers, her fans, and the sporting world in general.
In 2009, she became the second-oldest player in the modern era to win a WTA singles title when she conquered the Hansol Korea Open in Seoul. Kimiko's last singles title was in 2012 when she won three tournaments - all in the lower-level ITF circuit. In 2013, she won three doubles titles on the WTA Tour.
Kimiko has won eight WTA singles titles and reached the singles semifinals in three of the four Grand Slam tourneys -- the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. Her best U.S. Open finish was in the last eight. She reached her highest ranking of 4 in late 1995, behind Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
Like each athlete has that one special match that stays into their memories forever, Kimiko has one such too. Date said her non-tour Fed Cup match against world No. 1 Steffi Graf at Ariake Coliseum in 1996 stands out as one of the most memorable for her. Appearances in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics have also been jewels in the crown of a dazzling career.
When she began the second innings of her career, Kimiko always said that she had a newfound look towards the game. Having come off age had made her shed all the inhibitions that earlier in life would mount as pressures. It was all about just enjoying the sport for the Japanese. She could play fearlessly and yield magic with the racquet and balls. She no longer felt the need of good results to devour a sense of accomplishment. She credited this attitude of hers for a continued nine and a half years in the tennis world.
Now that she steps out of the realms of tennis, Kimiko said, "I don't think there has been an athlete as blessed as I am. To be given two chances in my career -- the first when I competed against top-level players, and the second when I made it to the top-50 playing in my late 30s and early 40s. It was something I never thought was possible."
Sport is about stories of such fighters, about relentless spirits of athletes which kindle a fire that goes into the making of Champions. This year has been conspicuously a season which gave us examples of such sporting greats who flaunt the ability of turning back the hands of the clock in the face of injuries and scars inflicted by the passage of time.
We wish Kimiko a very healthy and happy life ahead. She stands as a beacon to each of us.Published 14 Sep 2017, 13:14 IST