By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Both Ai Sugiyama and Kimiko Date Krumm bowed out of the first round of the Pan Pacific Tennis Open in Tokyo Monday. Sugiyama was forced to pull out of her match with Russian Nadia Petrova after just 39 minutes due to illness while Date Krumm lost an exhaustingly long battle with the world’s 35th ranked Aleksandra Wozniak.
For Date Krumm, who celebrated her 39th birthday Monday, the loss brings to an end a whirlwind month that saw her bounced from the first round of the U.S. Open qualifying matches to begin September, to reaching the doubles finals in Guangzhou last week, to winning the Hansol Korea Open Sunday and becoming the second oldest winner of a WTA Tour tournament in the history of the sport (Billie Jean King was 39 years, 7 months and 23 days old when she won at Birmingham, England in 1983).
“I realized one more time after this game that we don’t know about tennis unless we actually play it,” said Date Krumm said after she defeated Medina Garrigues in Sunday’s final. After imposing her will on a far younger field in Seoul this past week including 20-year-old Alisa Kleybnova, 26-year-old Daniela Hantachova, 22-year-old Maria Kirilenko and 27-year-old Anabel Medina Garrigues, all but the last taking three full sets, Date Krumm carried her gritty, hearty play into Tokyo before losing to the 22-year-old Wozniak, 7-5, 6-7 (2/7), 4-6.
For the 34-year-old Sugiyama, her singles loss (she remains in the tournament’s doubles competition) marks the end of a successful 17-year career that included rising as high as No. 8 in singles and No. 1 in doubles as well as a record 62 consecutive appearances in the main draw of the Grand Slams. After announcing earlier this month that she would retire at the end of this season, the Kanagawa native received a special ceremony that kicked off the tournament where she thanked fans for their support and fellow players for their friendship during her career.
“I am truly grateful and feel so blessed that I am retiring with such a wonderful ceremony before so many people,” Sugiyama said, addressing thousands of fans on the center court of Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum.
It was a bittersweet ceremony, as Sugiyama has had a rough singles campaign this season that included an 11-match losing streak and several first round exits. She ended the 2008 season ranked 31st in the world, and ends this season at 96th.
This slide aided her in her decision to call it quits after spending 30 years of her life dedicated to tennis. Throughout her career, she has been one of the most consistently good players on the tour, having won three Grand Slam women’s doubles titles and reaching the singles quarterfinals in the 2000 Australian Open and at Wimbledon in 2004. Overall, she has six WTA titles, including two, fittingly, in Tokyo, to go along with her 38 doubles titles.
It seems odd then that at 34, Sugiyama is putting a close to her career, while at 39, Kimiko Date Krumm is resurrecting hers.
“It is hard to keep playing, because a season is long… and you must travel from one country to another every time. You must keep working hard to always show a good performance,” Sugiyama said, adding that the physical strain prompted her decision to retire.
Over the past few years, the game has gotten even more physical, dominated by a long list of Amazonian-like women who are all about size and power. The Williams sisters, the world’s number one Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic, Samantha Stosur, Maria Sharapova, etc. etc.
But with Date Krumm’s success and the recent US Open win of Kim Clijsters who returned as a mother after a 2 1/2 year hiatus, age is increasingly becoming a hurdle that can be more readily jumped over.
“I think I won’t have any problem in my physical strength over the next five years,” said Date Krumm. “But I’m married … have to have kids and have a lot of things to do. I think I can play tennis for the next two years.”
Who knows, maybe when Date Krumm calls it quits for the second time, Sugiyama, itching to play the game she loves, will be making her own comeback.
After all, she’ll only be 36.