Wimbledon 2011: Venus and Kimiko roll back the years
"Let the rain pitter patter, but it really doesn't matter..."Â because it was a lovely day to watch Venus Williams and Kimiko Date-Krumm
The imposing Venus Williams had already played a storming opening round against Akgul Amanmuradova in what was only her seventh match and second tournament of the year.
In a scant 16 games, she fired off 23 winners, seven aces, and just five unforced errors. With such a powerful opening statement to her Wimbledon campaign, many expected Williams to dominate her next match in similar fashion against the 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm.
Indeed, many may have considered skipping the opening match on Centre Court to dip into the tasty delights on offer around Wimbledon’s generous buffet of a schedule.
As luck would have it, the sky closed in and the rain hammered down. Every court disappeared beneath its green covers, every visitor disappeared beneath an umbrella.
All, that is, except the Centre Court””a glowing enclave protected by its own translucent umbrella of a roof.
The fortunate fans who had a ticket for the only action at the All England Club would have reason to cast a prayer of thanks to the rain gods, for they became part of what turned into the finest match of the tournament so far””the one that may eventually be talked of with the same reverence as last year’s Isner-Mahut drama.
Even without the tennis that unfolded, the back-story was compelling.
Williams, a former world No1, has 43 career titles, has reached eight Wimbledon finals””five of them ending in titles””and won the US Open twice. Add in 12 Grand Slam doubles titles and she stands apart as one of the greats of the women’s game.
She is also an enduring champion. Now 31, Williams continues to show a remarkable lust for her sport but had, this year, fallen to 30 in the rankings due to an injury sustained at the Australian Open. She only returned to the 2011 tour at Eastbourne last week, reaching the quarter-finals.
She nevertheless stormed through her opening Wimbledon match for the loss of just four games and without facing a break point.
But if the Williams story was impressive, the Date-Krumm story captured the imagination with equal power.
She played her first Wimbledon in 1989″”before 36 of the players in this year’s women’s draw were born. She reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1996, losing in a close three-setter to Steffi Graf, and promptly retired from tennis at the end of that year having reached No4 in the world.
During her 12-year break from professional tennis””she returned in 2008″”she worked for the Japanese equivalent of UNESCO and helped fund the building of a school in Laos. She also found time to run the London Marathon in under three and a half hours.
Wimbledon was her 17th tournament this year yet she had won only six matches before her straight-sets victory over Katie O-Brien in London. It made her the oldest winner of a Wimbledon match bar one: Martina Navratilova. Some company.
So with a combined age of more than 70, these two dramatically contrasting women took to court. They were separated by almost 10 years, almost nine inches in height and almost 20 kilos in weight””but they were also separated by an eternity in playing style.
The Japanese woman’s game is a throw back to the all-court grass tennis of serve-and-volley and chip-and-charge. She takes the ball on the rise and slices away to both wings””sometimes with two hands, sometimes with one.
In contrast, the American is a power player who developed in the baseline era, able to load the ball with top-spin but with the ability also to rush the net and pick off the volley.
Initially, it was the old-fashioned way that dominated as Date-Krumm weaved a magical web of cross-court slice, flat down-the-line winners and touch volleys and drop-shots. Williams could neither read nor counter the pace of the Japanese game nor her variety of tactics.
Date-Krumm rushed to a 5-1 lead before Williams even managed to hold serve, and the Centre Court became entirely beguiled by the craft, aggression and creativity of her tennis. But Williams gradually began to read this new ‘old’ style and battered her serve and forehand to five consecutive games.
It looked as though Date-Krumm had blown her chance but she showed extraordinary mental resolve””and not a little courage””to persist with her aggressive tactics and took the set to a tie-break with a glorious stop volley.
She rushed to a 6-2 lead but Williams countered and they changed ends at six points all. But against all expectations, Date-Krumm converted her sixth set point. The Centre Court””and all those watching Wimbledon’s only match on live-feed””knew this was something special: a combined tally of 44 winners for a start.
The second set, too, was full of spectacle, not least in the opening game when Date-Krumm switched from right to left hand to reach a wide backhand and return a winning lob.
But Williams, finding more rhythm on her ground strokes and more confidence on her net approaches, broke in the fourth game and served it out, 6-3.
When she also broke in the second game of the decider, it seemed decisive, but the Williams’ serve floundered and a double fault handed the break back.
The level of both women as they entered the third hour responded to the attack of the other. Williams countered her opponent’s net charges by coming in just as often. Her serve hit the 120mph level and her roars as she hit each ball reverberated around the hangar-like court.
Date-Krumm resisted the onslaught, and saved six break points to draw level at 2-2. And so it stayed until 6-6 but then Williams brought all her power to bear as the petite frame of Date-Krumm hit a couple of weary forehands out. Williams drew deep, breathed deep and forced the deciding break to win 8-6.
One woman’s head was thrown back in relief, the other’s sank onto her chest. But the crowd who had taken their seats to avoid a rainstorm burst into cheers like the sun bursting through clouds.
It had taken almost three hours, had contained almost 100 winners, and included almost as many net attacks. But the statistics became irrelevant.
This was an inspirational match, and the British rain had ensured it took its rightful place: centre-stage.