Puccini, the old Italian songwriter, would have loved Kimiko Date, the getting-older (but not noticeably) Japanese tennis player.
Instead of his opera, “Madame Butterfly,” the tale of a Japanese lass betrayed by her American lover, Puccini might have created “Kid Butterfly,” the story of a world-cruising athlete who has not been daunted or betrayed by age.
Remember “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”? That was Muhammad Ali’s theme, devised by Bundini Brown, his witch doctor. Kimiko Date fits the butterfly part, although – as the Australian Open’s elder personage at 39 – some of the sting is gone.
That doesn’t bother her even though things were going badly for her out on Court 8 in the boonies Wednesday. The crowd of a few hundred was all for Kimiko, cheering and flapping rising sun banners. One fellow flashed a sign that said WHAT A SHOT! She didn’t give him enough opportunities, and lost, 6-4, 6-2, to a strong Russian, Yaroslava Shvedova who towered 7 inches taller than Date, and looked sinister behind dark glasses.
Shvedova, 22, remembers “reading about Kimiko when I was a little girl. Then she retired. Now she’s back, but at 39 still very good. I had to play well.”
Would it have been embarrassing to lose to a 39-year-old in a major? Yaroslava, who ranks No. 52 and beat No. 5 Jelena Jankovic at the U.S. Open of 2009, didn’t answer. But it was clear that she badly didn’t want that to happen.
She emitted a victory whoop when Date’s last shot nestled in the net. Kimiko grimaced for an instant, but then her radiant smile returned – one of the more brilliant smiles in the game.
Fourteen years ago she walked away from the tour on which she had run so swiftly and was a Top Ten member. The pressure of being Japan’s foremost of all-time was “too confining.” She wanted to see the rest of life, but did some TV commentary on the sport, had more time for family and friends, avoided the airplanes. “But after a while when I was beside the court doing TV, I could sense the excitement in there again. It was a challenge to see if I could do it again.”
Then she got support from a far-off country. German racing car driver Michael Krumm met and married her. He urged her to try tennis again. He liked watching her. “Do what pleases you,” he told her.
The long track back was there, and she stepped out on it two years ago. Legs were in great shape. She’d traipsed the London Marathon in a little over 3 hours. Kimiko, No. 4 in 1995, No. 8 in 1996, next appeared on the computer after a dozen-year absence: No. 198 in 2008. She was up to No. 82 last year, and now sits at No. 61, having beaten a Top Ten regular Nadia Petrova recently at Sydney.
This 110 pounder with straight black hair and a variety of spinning shots, is no antique curiosity. Anybody in the top 100 is a proficient pro.
“People always ask me, ‘Why?’ Why am I doing this? Because I love the challenge, and I can play for Japan again.” Federation Cup. She is understandably proud of having leaped a record gap between titles: winning Seoul, 2009 — 12 years after winning San Diego. Wow.
She’s excited about playing doubles here with an old friend, Yayuk Basuki of Indonesia. “Yayuk is 39 also. We’re the 78-year-old team,” Date laughed.
“What’s the Japanese word for forever?” I asked her.
“Eien,” she said.
Maybe instead of Kid Butterfly, she’s Madame Eien.