As a grimacing Kimiko Date rips another forehand past a male hitting partner less than half her age, all that’s missing is a cheesy Rocky-style backing track.
At the ripe of old age of 46, the former world number four and part-time baker insists she’s not burnt-out yet as the Japanese star prepares for her latest comeback to professional tennis after a year of injury hell.
Date, who took a 12-year hiatus from the sport after quitting at the peak of her powers in 1996, has no plans to shuffle off into retirement just yet.
“Everyone just assumed I’d quietly retire when I got injured,” the Kyoto native told AFP in an interview after a punishing three-hour workout.
“But I didn’t want to just quit because I was out hurt. I used it as motivation,” added Date, who has undergone two knee surgeries and opened a Tokyo bakery since last playing in the 2016 Australian Open qualifiers.
“Maybe you could call that gutsy. But I love a challenge — and I viewed this as another challenge.”
A wispy, wiry 5ft 4in (1.63 metres), Date’s game is a throwback to a time when tennis was as much about lobs, dinks and clever use of spin as the wham-bam of today’s master blasters.
And after an injury that almost dealt a knockout blow to her illustrious career, Date is once again looking to defy the odds.
“The nineties was my first career, then I came back and that was my second,” said the eight-times WTA Tour singles champion, who returns to competitive tennis next month at a challenger event in Gifu, central Japan.
“This is like my third time around but I know it won’t be easy after a blank year,” she added, sweat dripping from her brow.
“But I’m not putting pressure on myself. I’m honestly not thinking about breaking records. I just want to fight my way back to playing tour level tennis again.”
Date, who at the 2009 Korea Open became the second-oldest player in the modern era to win a WTA singles title after Billie Jean King, refuses to say when she will call time on her career.
“I really haven’t decided what age I want to continue playing until,” said the former Wimbledon semi-finalist, eligible for a protected ranking of 193 on her return to tour.
“I’m sort of waiting for the moment when I feel content enough to walk away from the game,” added Date, who last year divorced German racing driver Michael Krumm. “It hasn’t arrived yet so I’ll keep fighting.”
Date’s erstwhile idol Martina Navratilova retired a month short of her 50th birthday, but Date ruled out a fairytale appearance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“That’s probably 100% a no,” Date winced. “I’ll be watching the Tokyo Olympics at home on TV.”
Dwarfed by today’s muscular power-hitters, she is brutally honest about the future. “Every day I have aches and pains,” said Date. “Some days are better than others but I have to be careful I don’t push too much. I have to hold myself back a bit and keep in control of my emotions.”
But Date, who delights customers by making regular appearances at her new bakery, still packs a mean punch and left her practice partner shaking his head as her shots fizzed past.
“The power and speed of tennis has evolved so much,” she said.
“Players are physically much stronger but I still have one or two weapons of my own. I reckon I still have a little bit more left in me — even at my age.”
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