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By Chris Oddo



(February 8, 2013) -- In Fed Cup circa mid-1990’s, when a German team featuring World No. 1 Steffi Graf was the next opponent, odds of winning tended to vacillate somewhere between slim and slimmer.

Not surprisingly, those were the odds for Kimiko Date's Japanese squad in April of 1996, as they prepared to face the Germans in the Fed Cup World Group quarterfinals. The Germans hadn't been beaten by anyone but Spain in the last three years, Steffi Graf was at the height of her powers and Anke Huber was in the top ten. The forecast called for pain for Japan, and really nothing else.

The Japanese had never won a World Group tie, and Date, the Japanese No. 1, had never beaten Graf. That would all change on one magnanimous weekend in Japan in late April, however.

When Date produced an inspired masterpiece to defeat Graf 7-6(7), 3-6, 12-10 in a frantic battle, the boisterous Tokyo faithful burst into a cacophonous roar to announce their nation’s arrival on the world tennis scene. They took a 2-1 lead on the Germans and the momentum from Date's two singles win would eventually allow Kyoko Nagatsuka and Ai Sugiyama to finish off Germany when they defeated Graf and Huber in the deciding fifth doubles rubber.

Date's masterpiece itself was more stupendous than boisterous. Instead of relying on power, 5'4" Date relied on guile, speed and anticipation against the mightier German. It was almost as if she was tapping into Graf's brain waves; wherever the German aimed the ball, there was Date, waiting, in perfect position to reply.

Reply she did, with depth, maddening consistency, and a deceptive attack that left Graf flat-footed many times whiles winners zinged past. That’s not to say that Graf was playing the fool. She was her usual calculated, chilling self, refusing to give Date the upper hand and threatening to dominate at times.

But Date pressed on, taking the play to Graf. Was Krumm really this good, and could she keep it up?

If you want to get an indication of just how scintillating Date’s tennis was on this day, just scroll the video to the 1:08 mark and hear commentator Leif Shiras let out a guttural howl of appreciation as Date strikes one of her many forehand winners. Watch beyond this point to witness the remarkable footwork and counterpunching abilities of Japan’s No. 1, as well as her strangely linear and anachronistic groundstrokes.

Watching the match, one quickly gets the feeling that Date’s ability to fluster Graf was anything but a fluke. Graf had already won several high-stakes matches over Date at this point in their careers, including the 1994 Australian Open semifinals and the 1995 Miami final, yet Date didn’t seem fazed at all by the Graf aura or the Graf game.

Graf admitted as much. "She's come up with some great tennis against me," the 22-time Grand Slam champion said during Wimbledon later that season (Graf would defeat Date in the ‘96 Wimbledon semifinals in what turned out to be their last meeting). "She loves the way I play, very flat and with pace, and she just takes my power and knows pretty early where I'm going to hit it. If we played a little slower, it would be much more difficult for her, but it's just not my game."

Date’s triumph seemed like it might unlock the door to higher ground for Japanese tennis and for Date’s career, but it remains the pinnacle of Japan’s Fed Cup history. Even stranger, five months later, Date would announce her retirement from the game while still holding a ranking inside the WTA’s top ten... Only to return 12 years later with what we now know is a vengeance.

17 years later, here we are. 42-year-old Date-Krumm, now mowing down WTA longevity records with pretty much every victory, would like nothing more than to rewrite Japan’s history against Russia this weekend in Moscow. She’s done it before, so who’s to say she can’t do it again?


 

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