James Lawton: Agonising outcome leaves Date-Krumm to ponder her lost years

She nearly turned back the clock in a scarcely believable fashion. It might have happened if she had put away an inviting smash in the deciding set

Who said that women cannot play tennis – or at least not in that way that can make you feel as involved and as absorbed as if you are at ringside for a great feat of pugilism?

Whoever they are they should seek some cover in the wake of the match that invaded the Centre Court here yesterday so brilliantly, so unforgettably that for 24 hours at least even men of the stature and achievement of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had to be content with a place in the the margins of SW19.

The fact is that for nearly three hours they were usurped utterly by Venus Williams, five times Wimbledon champion, and her opponent Kimiko Date-Krumm, who even in second-round defeat made a case to be regarded as one of the most remarkable women ever to perform in a Grand Slam tournament.

Date-Krumm is 40 years and nine months old – almost a decade older than the superstar she pushed to the limits of a talent that has gathered in nine major titles since she emerged so remarkably with her sister Serena from one of the toughest quarters of Los Angeles. Yet it was not merely the age of Date-Krumm, who grew up on the sacred ground of Japan's shrine-like city Kyoto, that seemed so remarkable as she pushed Williams so hard for her 6-7, 6-3, 8-6 victory.

It was the haunting sense of what she might have achieved if she had not quit the game in 1996 for 12 years after rising to No 4 in the world rankings – a farewell that came just after she lost to the great Steffi Graf in a Wimbledon semi-final that stretched over two days because of early darkness.

Date-Krumm was also in search of some light for herself in those days. She was unhappy on the tour, a rare Asian player struggling to deal with a strange new culture and when she married German motor racer Michael Krumm, she decided to opt for family life.

Unfortunately, the anticipated babies didn't arrive and three years ago, with the prompting of her husband, she decided to return to the theatre in which she had shown so much promise – despite being persuaded as a child, for cultural reasons, to abandon her natural instinct to be a left-hander.

Yesterday she was stunningly close to turning back the clock in a scarcely believable fashion.

Perhaps it might have happened if, among all the audacity of her game, the brilliant ground strokes along the line and the nerveless pursuit of opportunities at the net, she had put away an inviting smash when she held break point early in the deciding set. Maybe she might have truly believed that she could envelop all that lost time, and nagging regrets, with a triumph that would never be forgotten by anyone who saw it.

As it was, though, she had to settle for the huge ovation from the Centre Court which had just seen, by a huge margin, the game of the tournament – and a deep-running tribute from a Williams who had been shocked to lose the first set tie-break after fighting back from a 5-1 deficit with the help of 120mph serves of growing accuracy.

"I thought she played unbelievable today," said Williams. "Yeah, she runs down every ball. She hits every ball basically on the baseline hard and flat. If you get it anywhere near the mid-court she hits it for the corners and comes to the net. I played a very tough opponent today – she doesn't play anywhere near her age."

Date-Krumm talked wistfully of the fight for fitness demanded by her years – "Maybe I have a little stamina now, but I have to do a lot of sprinting. I have to try to keep up. I don't know how long I will go on playing but I'm very pleased that I have had a day like today. Of course, very disappointed because there were times when I thought I could win but I'm glad I was able to make a fight with a champion like Venus. She's a great player, such a champion here, and yes, of course, I'm proud that I could make such a fight with her."

In the first round she beat Britain's Katie O'Brien 6-0, 7-5 but long before the end of yesterday's affair that had seemed nothing so much as a mere limbering-up exercise. She invaded the aura of Williams quite ferociously and even more impressive was the way she absorbed the strength of her victim's recovery, then pushed so hard again to carry the first set. It was the same in the third, when Williams had reason to believe her venerable opponent had gone beyond her limits. In fact for some it seemed that one of the great Wimbledon shocks was being refashioned when she took the score to 6-6, again with the help of shots of brilliant invention and force.

At the finish, though, she was obliged to acknowledge the depth of her opponent's drive to survive, even to the point of suggesting that Williams' elaborate, and frequently aborted service toss-up, was just another device to steal an edge. "She's a great player, very clever, very smart. For example when she tossed up the serve she was always watching where I moved, to backhand or forehand. So she's very clever. Mentally, also, she is very strong. On the key points, she just never made a mistake."

If Date-Krumm made any mistakes, she was not about to dwell upon them. She advised all young players to follow the sweet style of players like Martina Navratilova and Graf, her own idols, because it was in such a style that you discovered the beauty of the game and the deepest enthusiasm for it.

No, she couldn't say when she would finally walk away from the game she put down for so long. But she thought that maybe she could go on a little longer – if she could still make the kind of fight she had produced today. Of course, there was only one mistake she couldn't avoid. It was the one of growing old. However, no one seemed to notice at Centre Court yesterday.

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