Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Unconventional and Unbelievable

At 40, Kimiko Date Krumm is proving that less can be more than enough on the WTA Tour.

She's old enough to be your mother. She's tiny enough to be your kid sister. Her anachronistic forehand is more retro than Lenny Kravitz covering Bill Withers, and at the ripe age of 40 she's playing a game that is made for lithe and limitless teenagers -- not mature and aging technicians. But none of these incongruous facts seem to hinder the engine that drives this phenom to rewrite the WTA's record books practically every time she plays a match.

She's Kimiko Date Krumm, and if you underestimate her, you might find yourself wishing you hadn't. Oh, and you're probably gonna lose, too.

Spectators in attendance at the Pan Pacific Open in tokyo in September couldn't be blamed for doing a double take when they glanced out onto to the court to see the vivacious and somewhat giant Maria Sharapova towering over Date Krumm. Sharapova is ten inches taller than Date Krumm -- and 17 years her junior -- but Date Krumm, who turned 40 last month, is undergoing a Renaissance that makes seemingly telling numbers like these fade into the distance.

She's making a lot of top players fade into the distance of late as well.

You can cook the numbers any way you like, and measure the power of each individuals stroke as well, but when a tennis match is over and the diminutive 40-year-old is celebrating another shocking yet inspiring victory, it becomes clear that there is so much more to winning in the WTA than just bombing away from the baseline.

"It's incredible," said Sharapova after that aforementioned match in Tokyo. "It just shows you how she has stayed in great shape while away from the game. She is incredibly fit."

She's incredibly smart too, and incredibly accurate. Those who wish to degrade Date Krumm's resurgence as unimpressive because she is winning solely with her legs and her defense are not doing her or the level of play on the tour any justice. While Date Krumm plays a very reactive brand of tennis, she does so in a highly aggressive manner. Just ask the seven top-20 players and two top-10 players that she's defeated over the course of 2010. The 40-year-old doesn't simply camp out on her baseline and wait for her opponents to implode -- she uses a lethal combination of redirection and angles to put her opponents on the defensive, and once she's done that she's one heck of a finisher.

It's natural to look at Date Krumm's simplistic stroke production and assume she's going to get bombed off the court by all these women with big backswings and textbook follow throughs, but you'd be very wrong to do so. What Date Krumm's game lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in what many other top players seem to lack -- accuracy, consistency, and a certain maddening flatness that keeps her shots low to the ground and screaming through the court.

And the fact that she's done it all with that rudimentary backswing and her very abbreviated service motion should send a message to a lot of young players out there. Big powerful swings are great, but sometimes hitting harder doesn't necessarily equate with hitting smarter.

She was one set away from becoming the oldest women to ever win a WTA title in a week where she became the oldest women to ever defeat a top-ten player. She's the real deal. And as long as she keeps showing up to play, records will keep falling like dominoes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Andy Murray: One Small Step from Immortality

Not many people envy Andy Murray at the moment, but that will change in a heartbeat if he wins a Grand Slam.

He can do it. He can't do it. He's got to do it next year. He'll never do it next year.

Everybody has their own personal opinion on whether or not Andy Murray will eventually become the first player from Great Britain to win a Grand Slam since Fred Perry in 1936, but we can all agree on one thing: If he ever does it, he'll be set for life.

Think about it. Guys like Federer and Nadal spend their whole lives trying to collect Grand Slam hardware, but all Murray has to do is win one and he'll become an instant hero whose legend will more than likely never be tarnished.

The point that I'm trying to illustrate is that Andy Murray actually has a pretty good deal being a Brit. Really, he does. Most people feel sympathy for the strapping young British buck because he has had to deal with a ridiculous amount of media attention and scrutiny ever since it became obvious that he could be "the guy."

That's a fate I wouldn't wish on any young athlete, but the flip-side of the coin more than makes it worth while. Murray has been handed a very realistic challenge, and if he should succeed in fulfilling his promise (all we need is one Grand Slam, Andy) over the course of the next several years, he'll go down in tennis lore as the bona fide superman of British tennis.

Just one Slam, and the keys to the castle are yours, Mr. Murray. But if you should fall short, you'll forever be relegated to the back pages of those history books, in the index under "almost, but not quite."

There is no doubt that Murray's quest for glory has been somewhat hindered by fact that the media puts a target on his back each and every time he goes out to play a Slam. Professional tennis players thrive on challenges, and every time one of them faces Andy Murray in a Grand Slam, the media basically dares them to spoil the moment that a whole nation is loudly longing for. Guys like Stan Wawrinka are more than happy to go out and play inspired tennis to see if they can be the one to hit the target and make tennis' biggest headline for the day, and sometimes they do.

But can Andy Murray's string of failure in Grand Slams last forever, given the sheer and impressive amount of talent and moxie that the man possesses?

There is still the very undeniable fact that Murray has been to a Slam final in two of the last three years in spite of the madness that surrounds him (And a few Wimbledon semis to boot). And if you judge the 23-year-old by his words - press conferences in which he sounds genuinely patient and unperturbed by the expectations - he's getting better and better at ignoring the press and just doing what he does best on the court.

One point at a time, one game at a time, one match at a time, and one day, presto, we could all be watching Andy sipping tea with the Queen while paparazzi stumble over themselves to snap a picture below.

As difficult as it must be to concentrate on tennis with a media maelstrom tracking his every move, his every pending coaching decision and Playstation-induced breakup with his girlfriend, his every tweet and his every quip with the LTA, Andy Murray actually has an incredibly low bar to immortality in front of him.

He just needs ONE lousy Slam and he'll become a national hero for the rest of his life, even if he shows up at the next tournament fifty pounds overweight with a six-pack of Guinness by his chair where his bottle of energy water used to sit. Even if he dumps Kim Sears and tells the world that he's in love with his mom - none of it will matter.

Yes, it's that simple: For Murray, one Slam equals immortality. Meanwhile, geniuses like Federer and Nadal have to try and rack up as many Slams as possible in order for them to continue in this unwinnable quest for GOAT-ness. It's a never-ending treadmill that Murray will never have to deal with.

And perhaps, now that we are all expecting it a little less in 2011 than we were in 2010, things will fall into place for Murray, and he'll get it done.

He's given an awful lot of himself to this game, and it'd sure be nice if the gods of tennis gave a little something back to Andy, and to Great Britain for that matter. Just one Slam would be more than enough.