By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
I got a chance to get out to Carlsbad last weekend (July 31-Aug. 2) and take in some women’s pro tennis at the Mercury Insurance Open. The main reason I went down there was to see if I could get another interview with 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm. Unfortunately, she lost in the qualifying first round and I didn’t get an opportunity to chat with her like I had hoped.
What I did get was a good look at the three top Japanese women on Tour and another who just squeaks into the top 200. Obviously, Date Krumm is head of the class, moving up this week on the WTA Rankings to the 57th spot. Sure, it’s a far cry from being No. 4 in the world, a feat she attained 15 years ago, but it’s a rank that has been steadily moving up since she returned to tennis in 2008.
Date Krumm started off the year continuing her strong finish to the 2009 season. She went to the quarterfinals in Auckland and followed that up with a second round exit at Sydney. Since then, she hasn’t made it out of the second round in any of the eight tournaments she’s played in this year, with a loss in the qualifying this past weekend. From what I culd gather from her blog, Date Krumm was surprised and irritated at this early exit.
Perhaps she shouldn’t be though considering she’s been hampered by a calf injury this year, one that has kept her out of several tournaments and limited her in several others including the French Open this year. Despite the injury, she’s still been moving up the rankings from the 69th position she held coming into this season. She’s had two surprising victories over former world No. 1 Dinara Safina, who has been struggling to cope with her own back injury.
Ayumi Morita, who hails from Ota City, Japan, is currently ranked 89th. This time last year, she reached the pinnacle of her professional career by attaining the No. 64 spot in the world. The 20-year-old has had a similar season to Date, mostly getting bounced in the first or second rounds, but did have a dynamite run at Kuala Lumpur in February, where she made it all the way to the seminfinals. She’s known for her mental toughness, but was simply outplayed om Carlsbad in what I think was a huge upset to Ukrainian Olga Savchuk who won in straight sets 6-2, 6-0. Morita is the second highest ranking Japanese player in the world and holds the eighth highest ranking in Asia.
Kurumi Nara had the most impressive showing at the Mercury Open, reaching the first round and pushing 26th-ranked Maria Kirilenko to three sets 6-4, 6-7, 6-3. She’s quickly moved up the ranks and is already at the cusp of the top 100, sitting at 101. While all of the Japanese women on Tour are small compared to a lot of the amazon-like women at the top of the ranks, Nara is a micro-mini standing 5’2. Despite her diminutive stature, she held her own against Kirilenko, who’s some six inches taller, continually battling back. Nara’s tenacity pushed her through that second set where she fell behind early, but came roaring back to win the tie-break. While her skills and determination were on full display, what impressed me the most was the 18-year-old’s poise. Despite giving up serve on both the first and second sets, she never seemed shaken. In my opinion, she lost the third set because she just didn’t have enough energy to keep going. After four straight days of tennis including three rounds of qualifying matches, Nara just seemed completely gassed in the end. She’s one I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes on in the coming years.
Yurika Sema rounded out the Japanese players I got to watch. She’s an interesting mixture of French (her father) and Japanese. Sema is 24 and reached 142nd in the world towards the end of last year (she’s currently 191). In her match Saturday, she was completely dominated by the bigger, faster and stronger Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan. Her sister, Erika Sema also plays on the tour.
The interesting thing about watching the Japanese players is that they all must get by on quickness, skill, shot selection and smarts. None of them are taller than 5’4 and probably weigh in, at the very most, around the 120-pound range, with Sema and Nara, in my estimation, barely hitting the century mark.
I enjoy watching them because they always seem like underdogs. And when they bite with a ferocity far above their weight class, like Nara did this past weekend, it’s a pure adrenaline rush.
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Jordan Ikeda is the Rafu Sports Editor. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu shimpo