PARIS — You’d think a match between a 23-year-old in the prime of her years and a 39-year-old has-been would have a single storyline. The youngster — wide-eyed and hopeful — would presumably be rising to embrace a bright new world of triumph. While the veteran would probably be set on just wrapping it all up, quietly accepting her fateful end.
After all, of late, 23-year-old Dinara Safina is the most forlorn and melancholy elite player tennis we’ve sympathized with in a generation. Just a year ago, Marat Safin’s not-so-little sister was No. 1. Imposing her considerable game in a Henin-less clay-court universe, she again reached the Roland Garros final (as she did the year before), where surely this time she would prevail over the on-again, off-again Svetlana Kuznetsova.
Her serve faltering, her nerves shaky, the Russian meekly fell to her fellow Muscovite and began a semi-hellish descent, witnessed with some glee, by an unsparing press corps. A painful back, staccato losses, a tumbling ranking, incessant questions — Safina struggled as the critics pounded away. A faux No. 1, they howled.
The question was always the same. You top the rankings, but show me your
Slam titles. This year, on a bright Paris afternoon, the brooding babe would probably have settled for a single victory. But Safina had a date (not with destiny) but with Date: that would be Kimiko Date Krumm, the enduring flower of Japanese tennis. Never mind that Date Krumm first played at Roland Garros in ’89, when Safina was just three and (count ’em) 26 of the women in this year’s draw weren’t even born. But this is the era of born-again WTA careers. Unlike the brief respites of Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, Date-Krumm’s break from the game lasted an incredible 12 years. In that time, she helped construct an orphanage in Laos, ran marathons, swam, dabbled in TV and tried, without effect, “to make baby” with her husband, the German race driver Michael Krumm.
At Roland Garros she made hay, despite a leg injury and being down a set and a break to Safina. Using an inventive forehand with a whacky grip and an array of creative shotmaking, she won six of the last seven games and left Safina in the dust 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. After a tearful embrace with her husband, Date explained that she hits (as do/did Rafa Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Ken Rosewall and Margaret Court from) with her non-dominant hand, because as a kid her grandfather told her that “it’s not ladylike” to play tennis with her left hand.
Too bad that, for Safina’s sake anyway, nobody told Date that it’s unladylike for 39- year-olds to dispose of former No. 1 23-year-olds who once reigned (however uneasily) atop the rankings.