Kimiko Date returning to professional tennis at the age of 46

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Ageless: Kimiko Date training in Tokyo on March 31, 2017.

As a grimacing Kimiko Date rips another forehand past a male hitting partner less than half her age, all that’s missing is a cheesy Rocky-style backing track.

At the age of 46, the former world number four and part-time baker insists she’s not burnt-out yet as the Japanese star prepares for her latest comeback to professional tennis following a year of injury hell.

Date, who took a 12-year hiatus from the sport after quitting at the peak of her powers in 1996, has no plans to shuffle off into retirement just yet.

“Everyone just assumed I’d quietly retire when I got injured,” the Kyoto native told AFP in an interview after a punishing three-hour workout.

“But I didn’t want to just quit because I was out hurt. I used it as motivation,” added Date, who has undergone two knee surgeries and opened a Tokyo bakery since last playing in the 2016 Australian Open qualifiers.

“Maybe you could call that gutsy. But I love a challenge – and I viewed this as another challenge.”

A wispy, wiry 5ft 4in (1.63m), Date’s game is a throwback to a time when tennis was as much about lobs, dinks and clever use of spin as the wham-bam of today’s master blasters. And after an injury that almost dealt a knockout blow to her illustrious career, Date is once again looking to defy the odds.

“The nineties was my first career, then I came back and that was my second,” said the eight-time WTA Tour singles champion, who returns to competitive tennis next month at a challenger event in Gifu, central Japan.

“This is like my third time around but I know it won’t be easy after a blank year,” she added, sweat dripping from her brow.

“But I’m not putting pressure on myself. I’m honestly not thinking about breaking records. I just want to fight my way back to playing tour level tennis again.”

Date, who at the 2009 Korea Open became the second-oldest player in the modern era to win a WTA singles title after Billie Jean King, refuses to say when she will call time on her career.

“I really haven’t decided what age I want to continue playing until,” said the former Wimbledon semi-finalist, eligible for a protected ranking of 193 on her return to tour.

“I’m sort of waiting for the moment when I feel content enough to walk away from the game,” added Date, who last year divorced German racing driver Michael Krumm. “It hasn’t arrived yet so I’ll keep fighting.”

Date’s erstwhile idol Martina Navratilova retired a month short of her 50th birthday, but Date ruled out a fairytale appearance at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

All hail: Queen Kimiko.

All hail: Queen Kimiko.

“That’s probably 100 per cent a no,” Date winced. “I’ll be watching the Tokyo Olympics at home on TV.”

Dwarfed by today’s muscular power-hitters, she is brutally honest about the future.

“Every day I have aches and pains,” said Date. “Some days are better than others but I have to be careful I don’t push too much. I have to hold myself back a bit and keep in control of my emotions.”

But Date, who delights customers by making regular appearances at her new bakery, still packs a mean punch and left her practice partner shaking his head as her shots fizzed past.

“The power and speed of tennis has evolved so much,” she said. “Players are physically much stronger but I still have one or two weapons of my own. I reckon I still have a little bit more left in me – even at my age.”

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IN PICS: Miami Open Final: Roger Federer beats Rafael Nadal

19-1 - Federer's win/loss record this year.

Roger Federer defeated long-time rival Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4 to win the Miami Open on Sunday and continue his outstanding start to the year.

Since returning from his six month injury lay-off, the 35-year-old Federer has also won the Australian Open and Indian Wells and he heads into the clay season as, once again, the dominant presence on the ATP Tour.

Federer has beaten Nadal in all of those events this year and has now won his last four meetings between the pair.

The Spaniard was playing in his fifth Miami final but remains without a win in the Masters series event. The first set was a tight affair with both players having their opportunities to break but it was not until the eighth game and 10th break point of the set that one of them was able to get ahead. Nadal could only find the net from a Federer backhand and the Swiss grabbed a 5-3 lead and he comfortably held the next game to secure the first set. There has always been a marked contrast between Federer and Nadal's differing styles and with time it has become further accentuated. Nadal was working hard in the 83 degrees afternoon heat, thrusting himself into his shots while the elegant Federer's poise appeared almost casual. The second set took an almost identical path, albeit with fewer openings to break for both players until Federer again pounced, to grab a 5-4 lead when Nadal went long returning a fine backhand.

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COMMENT: Konta's driving force to maiden Grand Slam title

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Climbing high: Konta is moving up the rankings.

“I’ve always had the belief of wanting to become a Grand Slam champion, wanting to become the best in the world.”

Those were Johanna Konta’s words after beating Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets to win the biggest trophy of her career so far, the Miami Open, on Saturday.

They go a long way to illustrating the British No1’s ambition and drive to get to the top and be the best player she can possibly be.

You get the impression that the 25-year-old won’t rest until she wins a maiden major title and goes as far as topping the WTA Tour rankings.

Her climb from World No146 (June 2015) to become the new World No7 this month has been a monumental rise – and the odds are stacked in her favour to go further.

Serena Williams’ domination of women’s tennis is far from over but she won’t be around forever and with German Angelique Kerber suffering a dip in form, Konta is well placed to keep on moving up.

Tournament upon tournament, she seems to be growing in stature and is facing the likes of Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska, two players close to her in the rankings, with lots of confidence.

And, of course, she is beating them too on a consistent basis.

“I think that stays throughout, with every player I imagine, in their career (to win a Grand Slam),” she told journalists after victory in Florida.

“Without that, I don’t think it makes it as… the victories as sweet and I think also the defeats as motivating. I think that stays.

“And then it’s about keeping things simple and working for me. I just want to work and try to really bring out in myself the most that I have. Wherever that gets me that’s where it will get me, but hopefully the day I hang up my racquets I will be able to say that I really maximized my full ability and, my, yeah, everything inside me.”

🏆🌊❤👗👟 @asicstiger @topshop

A post shared by Johanna Konta (@jokonta91) on

Indeed, Konta’s work ethic and desire to improve is up there with the best.

It’s a default answer from most players that they are ‘working hard’ but with Konta, you completely buy into it.

Add in the fact she changed coaches at the end of her most successful season last year, appointing Wim Fissette to work alongside Andrew Fitzpatrick, underlines her quest for perfection and constant progression.

“I was very fortunate that throughout the years I’ve managed to have some very, very good people around me,” Konta, who had to deal with the emotional heartbreak of her psychologist Juan Coto dying last year, said.

“I think the more I was able to absorb from them, their knowledge and wisdom, and the more I was able to reinvest that into the matches that I played, and on a consistent basis, I think that’s part of reason I’m here now.”

Having reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open, Konta showed once again in Miami that she is capable of beating the best players in the world back-to-back.

A tilt at a Wimbledon title in July will now consume much of her focus, as well as the British press.

On the court, and just as much off it, her story has always carried interest following her upbringing in Sydney and switching her sporting allegiance from Australia to Britain – becoming a British citizen in May 2012.

Konta is only the fourth British female to ever reach the top 10 and she will be well supported when this SW19 campaign comes around.

It’s hype she has the temperament and professionalism to handle though.

Before the lawns of London, the clay court season may just arrive at the best time for Konta. It’s pretty much a win-win for the Brit, given she has never progressed past the first round at the French Open before.

That, in itself, means any run of sorts will give her plenty of confidence.

One thing’s for sure, expect Konta to be in the mix for a Grand Slam title this season.

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