Had Kimiko Date-Krumm not been spirited away by security, she might still be standing by the side of Court 12 now, signing autographs, posing for pictures and reciprocating high-fives.
The beaming 42-year-old from Tokyo was mobbed by around 100 – mostly, but not exclusively, Japanese – fans after beating Alexandra Cadantu, a 23-year-old Romanian, in the second round at Wimbledon.
A middle-aged woman clutched an oversized tennis ball to her chest and unashamedly cried. "Maybe older people take a message from her," said a reporter from one of Japan's daily newspapers, standing next to me. "Never give up!"
The success of Date-Krumm is one of the most inspiring stories of the tournament. Her 6-4, 7-5 victory on Thursday made her the oldest player ever to reach the third round at Wimbledon.
Ranked 84 in the world, her excellent all-round performance was an eerie throwback to her heyday in 1996, when she reached the semi-finals on these same grass courts, pushing Steffi Graf to three, tight sets.
Not long after that loss, Date-Krumm – then plain Kimiko Date, world No4 – retired aged 26. She was not enjoying her tennis and hated the travelling, particularly the unfamiliar cuisines. She ate only Japanese food back then and, without any high-ranked compatriots, she found life on tour lonely and alienating. In 2001 she married the German racing driver Michael Krumm and for more than a decade her only exposure to tennis was coaching kids and commentating on Japanese television.
Since her comeback in 2008, Date-Krumm's matches often feel like watching a player from a different era. She learned the game using a wooden racket in the 1970s and even now her groundstrokes have a flat trajectory, with little of the swirling, dive-bombing spin that modern equipment makes possible. Her metronomic serve does scarcely more than put the ball into play. On Thursday, against Cadantu, the speed gun registered 81mph so often that it seemed there must be a mechanical malfunction.
In the early stages of her match, it looked like her age and the sport might be catching up with Date-Krumm. The Romanian is very much a modern player: swishing ponytail; suntan the colour of a teak coffee table; 100mph-plus serve. At the changeovers, Cadantu had a selection of three drinks of different shades, while Date-Krumm sipped from a bottle of Evian, old school.
Experience, however, had to count for something. Despite making double the number of unforced errors, and hitting half the number of baseline winners, Date-Krumm invariably won the points that really mattered. At 4-4 in the second set she switched her racket from right to left hand – she plays right-handed but is naturally a southpaw – and hit a winning shot down the line. Her net play was instinctive and unerring.
Date-Krumm puts down her longevity to renewed motivation from the years away; she also praises Japanese tea and has finally found an appetite for Western food, stuffing carbs into her slim, 5ft 4in frame.
She skipped most of the clay-court season to make sure she was fully prepared for Wimbledon. "I tried to focus on the grass," she explained afterwards. "I have many good memories here. Luckily I didn't play a seeded player in the first rounds, so I'm very happy."
Her astonishing renaissance may be short-lived, at least at this tournament. In the next round, she faces the 31-year-old Serena Williams, who herself has shown the benefits of judiciously pacing her career and taking the odd sabbatical. Nevertheless, it is not a match that the reigning champion is taking for granted.
"I've never played her," said Williams, after beating Caroline Garcia 6-3, 6-2. "But I have so much respect for her. I think she's so inspiring to be playing such high-level tennis at her age. And she's a real danger on the grass court, I know that. I definitely will have to be ready."
Asked whether she could see herself matching Date-Krumm's feats one day, she laughed: "I didn't see myself playing at 31. I definitely do not see myself playing at 42."
Date-Krumm returned the compliments. "She's so strong," she said. "I need to just try my best. I hope I can stay more than one hour, one hour half. It's very, very difficult to beat her."
The oldest player in the men's draw, the 35-year-old Tommy Haas, a positive tyro by comparison, was due on court on Thursday against Jimmy Wang, a qualifier from Chinese Taipei. But the start of the match was delayed by late showers; they will try again on Friday.
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