Tennis icon Date concedes defeat in battle against age

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Kimiko Date still wanted to stay on the court and play the game she has always loved.

But her body will not allow her to do that anymore.

Speaking publicly for the first time since she announced her impending retirement from tennis on her blog late last month, Date said at a news conference at Ariake Colosseum on Thursday that her mental strength has not declined but her nagging knee and shoulder injuries would no longer let her play at the level she wanted to.

The 46-year-old said that she made up her mind in early August to hang up her racket, after returning from a training camp in the United States.

Date said that in addition to her knee injury, she had begun feeling pains in her shoulder — a recurrence of an injury she sustained in her 20s.

“I was frustrated that my body didn’t move as I wanted,” said Date, who won eight singles titles on the Women’s Tennis Association tour. “But I still believed that I would be able to do it if I spent more time rehabbing and training. And I strongly hoped to once again compete at a Grand Slam preliminary. But prior to the U.S. Open, I trained in the States for three weeks and I had problems in my knee and shoulder and it made me think that I had to make up my mind.”

Date, a former world No. 4, shocked the tennis world by calling it quits during the 1996 season, when she was considered to be at her peak (she was No. 8 in the WTA rankings at the time). She then dropped another surprise by returning to competitive tennis in 2008.

Date clearly had more success in what she calls her “first career,” advancing to the semifinals at the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon. Yet she also said that she had so much more joy after making her comeback.

“In the ’90s, there weren’t many Japanese athletes competing overseas like there are today, and the circumstances were different as well,” said Date, who was born in Kyoto. “I didn’t have the capacity in myself to accept all that.”

Date added that she felt compelled to keep winning during her heyday, and that wore her down.

But after making a comeback, she was older and more experienced and took to the court with a completely different mindset, which is why she was able to extend her colorful career for a further nine years.

“I had so much fun after I came back,” she said. “Winning was no longer the only goal to me, and I was able to embrace challenges every day.”

Date also insisted that she was able to prove that experience and technique could overcome the decline of one’s physical capabilities.

“Physically, of course it’s easier for you to perform how you want to when you are in your 20’s and 30’s,” Date said. “But I value experience as well. Especially as tennis is an individual sport and there is no physical contact between players. So in many cases you can beat younger players by capitalizing on your experience.”

Even in her “second career,” Date beat some of the world’s top players, such as Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina. She said that her signature rising shot was a big reason why it was possible for her to still compete in the modern era, where players have more power and speed compared in Date’s prime in the 1990s.

Date, who will compete in next week’s Japan Women’s Open in Tokyo in the final tournament of her professional career, said that she has not thought about her post-tennis career just yet.

“There are no other athletes as happy as I am,” she said with a smile. “Because I competed at this level twice.”

Asked if she had any regrets about her career, Date insisted that she has “zero,” although it is natural for an athlete to dwell on what might have been.

“If I didn’t have to quit, I wouldn’t quit,” she said half-jokingly. “But because I no longer have the right (mental and physical) balance, I think it’s difficult to continue to play on a tour.”

Date, who will compete in next week’s Japan Women’s Open in Tokyo in the final tournament of her professional career, said that she has not thought about her post-tennis career just yet.