Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Toray Pan Pacific Open is one of the most prestigious tournaments on the WTA tour and will feature 18 of the top 20 players on the planet. With plans to move the event to Wuhan in China next year, this could be the last opportunity for Japanese fans to see such a star-studded line-up at the Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo.

by Matthew Hernon

US Open finalists Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka will be in attendance, as will golden girl Maria Sharapova, though it is Kimiko Date-Krumm who will no doubt get the loudest ovation. The 42-year-old, who made a shock return to the game in 2008 after a 12-year absence, has performed admirably since coming out of retirement. Earlier this year she became the oldest woman to progress to the third round of Wimbledon in the Open era. Playing on Centre Court against Serena Williams, she was loudly cheered every time she won a point and she is certain to receive even more vociferous support in her native homeland.

“It is very important for me as it is one of the few tournaments in Japan and the only Premier Five and WTA tournament in Tokyo,” Date-Krumm told Weekender. “It is a great chance for the public here to enjoy matches between the top players in the world. I just hope they come out and support the Japanese players at the event.”

Date-Krumm was ranked fourth in the world at her peak, winning the Pan Pacific Open in 1995. She also reached the semi-finals of the French Open, the Australian Open and Wimbledon during the mid-nineties. The game has changed dramatically since then though, and is now a sport dominated by big hitters who tend to stay on the baseline.

“Date-Krumm’s return to tennis has been a breath of fresh air in a sport that at times can seem all too predictable”

“Players who have speed and power have come to the forefront. I am always thinking about how to play against that kind of player, but basically my style of play hasn’t really changed. I think players had more variation in their shots when I played before and there were more characters in the game.”

Date-Krumm’s return to tennis has been a breath of fresh air in a sport that at times can seem all too predictable. Regularly charging to the net, playing lobs and drop-shots, she is like a throwback to the nineties. Not only is her game entertaining, it is also effective. In her five years back as a professional she has taken a number of notable scalps including Samantha Stosur, whom she beat to claim the Japan Open, Maria Sharapova, whom she defeated at the Pan Pacific Open in 2010 and Nadia Petrova, whom she swept aside 6-2, 6-0 in the first round of this year’s Australian Open.

Watching her perform so well in her 40s, you wonder if she quit the game too early. Legendary players like Martina Navratilova certainly think she did; however, the lady herself told us that she had “no regrets whatsoever over the decision.” Despite the fact that she was seen as a genuine challenger for the Grand Slams, she wasn’t enjoying her tennis. Constantly being on the road was proving to be a particular burden, she didn’t like Western food and there were few Japanese players for her to mingle with.

On top of all that, she was under intense pressure from the Japanese media who were desperate to see her succeed. Fast-forward two decades and things are very different. She can play with a smile on her face knowing that expectations are much lower. Few will be tipping her to repeat the success of 1995 when she lifted the Pan Pacific trophy, yet at the same time nobody in the draw – many of whom weren’t even born when she started playing professionally – will be taking her lightly. At 42 Date-Krumm remains as competitive as ever.

Image: © Toray PPO Tennis 2013