Former top 20 Ana Konjuh returns (video)

PARIS – Five years ago, 15-year-old Ana Konjuh held virtually every big junior title there was.

She won the Orange Bowl and the Eddie Herr in Dec. 2012 (actually, she was still 14 then).

She won the Australian Open juniors weeks later over Katerina Siniakova in the final (and also teamed up with Canadian Carol Zhao to win the doubles). 

Konjuh reached the semis in both singles and doubles in the French Open juniors, and the singles semis at Wimbledon.

And she capped off her junior career with a US Open junior title, during which she defeated reigning French Open (adult version) champion Jelena Ostapenko in the first round, and American CiCi Bellis in the third round.

Those were fairly lofty credentials to bring to a pro career. By the time she was 19, last July, she hit the top 20 for a week and spent the entire season in the top 50.

And then, she disappeared.

Well, Konjuh is back for this French Open, after rehab following a second elbow surgery.

Out of the top 100

Konjuh missed four months after the first elbow surgery, which came shortly after she began her pro career after the Australian Open in 2014. She was just 16.

After last year’s US Open, she had a second surgery.

The Croat tried to come back in January; clearly, she wanted to play the Australian Open. But after a brief outing at a tuneup event in Brisbane, she fell off the charts again.

Her name appeared on plenty of entry lists. But she always ended up withdrawing. This time, she stuck.

Tough first round

Konjuh doesn’t have an easy one in her return to the courts. She faces No. 23 seed Carla Suarez Navarro.

To that end (purely coincidentally, no doubt), she played practice sets with Suárez Navarro’s countrywoman Garbiñe Muguruza Saturday.

It seemed definitely a random pairing. And if there was one takeaway from it, it’s that nearly all the points were pretty short.

Konjuh is definitely the epitome of today’s “aggressive player”. Which, in essence means that she can hit a lot of winners, but also cough up a lot of unforced errors.

She coughed up a bushel on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Muguruza is looking for a return to form.

The 24-year-old  won one match in Miami, and none in Indian Wells before running the table at a smaller event in Monterrey, Mexico in early April.

Her clay-court season has been less than inspiring. She retired in her first match in Stuttgart, lost in the third round in Madrid and lost a third-set tiebreak to Daria Gavrilova in her first match in Rome. That one was a bit of a shocker.

(Let’s note, though, that Muguruza is ranked No. 3 in the world. It’s not like she’s having a terrible life).

The Spaniard shocked the tennis world in 2016 when she defeated Serena Williams in the Roland Garros final.

(If you thought the frost in the air during Muguruza’s on-court consults with coach Sam Sumyk was limited to those brief encounters, you can see on this video that she pretty much ignores him – except when she’s arguing with him – as he’s non-stop coaching his butt off on the practice court. Brrr…..)

Muguruza has a tough opening match as well.

She faces another former champion in Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Kuznetsova has started up slowly after missing months because of a wrist issue. But one thing she does know how to do is win in Paris.

Who else is back?

Konjuh and Belinda Bencic, a pair of 1997s, reached the Wimbledon junior girls’ doubles final in 2012. They lost to Genie Bouchard and Taylor Townsend. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Belinda Bencic is back

The former No. 7, still just 21, has been out since Indian Wells.

Trivia: Bencic and Konjuh, a pair of 1997s, reached the Wimbledon junior girls’ doubles final in 2012 when Konjuh was 14, and Bencic just turned 15.

They lost to Genie Bouchard and Taylor Townsend.

That’s quite a crop of four players to track, in terms of the ups and downs of their careers.

Bencic has played just three tournaments this season, a year that began with so much promise when she upset Venus Williams in the first round of the Australian Open.

The Swiss player had battled back at the end of 2017, after missing nearly six months after wrist surgery and watching her ranking fall out of the top 300. This year, it was a foot injury. And Bencic has had periodic back problems.

Between the two of them, they could start a franchise.

Bencic got the best draw of all. She’ll meet qualifier Deborah Chiesa of Italy, Chiesa is a year older than Bencic, but currently ranked a career best No. 163. 

This is not only Chiesa’s first main-draw appearance in Paris, it’s her first appearance in Paris – period – since she made the doubles draw in the junior girls’ event five years ago.

Nike is ready … Is Serena ready for Roland Garros?

PARIS – As little as Serena Williams has played this year – for the last year and a half, with the birth of Olympia – there’s no way to know what her level will be.

But after she opted not to play either of the big WTA Tour clay warmups in Madrid and Rome, it’s an even bigger question mark.

It’s one of the secrets that will be revealed as the French Open gets under way on Sunday.

Williams’ sister Venus does play on Sunday, against China’s Qiang Wang. But Serena, in the top half of the women’s singles draw, won’t play until Tuesday or Wednesday.

During a practice on Suzanne Lenglen Friday, Williams was definitely not pushing herself. Similar to her sister’s practice the previous day, she really was hardly moving at all.

The sound of the ball off the racket, of course, sounds the same as ever.

Here’s what it looked like.

Nike ready to represent

There are promo posters celebrating Williams’ return to Paris all over the city.

“The Queen is Back” – they harken.

Nike

Is she? We’ll soon find out.

Williams’ first-round opponent is Kristyna Pliskova, the lefty twin sister of top-five player Karolina Pliskova.

Pliskova’s ranking has been as high as No. 35 (that was last July). It’s currently at No. 70. But she has some good wins during the clay-court swing.

She qualified and made the third round in Madrid. And in Charleston, on the American Har-Tru in early April, she defeated Petra Kvitova, Katerina Siniakova and Elena Vesnina on her way to the quarterfinals.

Can it be Serena time?

Through all of Williams’ notable absences from the Tour during her long career, you always got the sense that when she did return, she could turn on the switch and become Serena again.

There was a lot of hard work and sweat behind the scenes to make that happen, of course. But her base level is so high, she can win a lot of matches even as she tries get back to her top level.

Everyone remembers that 2007 Australian Open when Williams came in visibly out of shape. And yet, by the end of the fortnight, not only was she far more match fit – she was holding up the trophy.

Williams was unseeded, ranked No. 81 when she went Down Under. On her way to a 6-1, 6-2 win in the final over world No. 2 Maria Sharapova, she defeated several top-20 players: No. 6 Nadia Petrova, No. 11 Jelena  Jankovic, No. 12 Nicole Vaidisova and No. 17 Shahar Pe’er.

She was 25 then, though. And she hadn’t had a baby and a really tough post-birth period with complications.

At 36, it’s a significantly bigger challenge.

Not match tough – but is she healthy?

There were photos of her at the Mouratoglou Academy a few weeks ago in which she had some significant tape on her knee. She was fiddling with her right leg during this Friday practice. 

But it was hard to tell if something was bothering her, because she didn’t run much.

We’ll find out soon enough just how up she is for it.

In the meantime, she’s got a bitchin’ pair of shoes to wear.

Nike

Not only that – she’s got a guy. Among his duties are collecting said blingy shoes, knocking off the terre battue – and storing them neatly in a plastic bag.

Nike

That is good living.

Popular win for Andujar in Marrakech

Sometimes, the good guys win – not that Pablo Andujar’s opponent in the Marrakech final Sunday, Kyle Edmund, isn’t a good guy himself.

But the victory by the 32-year-old Spaniard – his third career title in Marrakech – completes a long slog of a comeback after three elbow surgeries.

Andujar defeated Edmund 6-2, 6-2 to complete a double over the last two weeks.

He won a Challenger in Alicante, Spain last Sunday, traveled to Morocco and kept the momentum going in impressive style.

He came “home”, and will leave with the trophy.

“I don’t have words for your support. Each time I come here, I’m like at home, you make me feel like I’m at home. A thousand times thank you to everyone,” Andujar said in French, during a trophy presentation in which he spoke three languages.

Andujar

It took Andujar about 10 months after his third elbow surgery in 13 months to finally post a victory on the ATP Tour.

He did it in Rio de Janeiro in February.

But then, another setback. In his next match, against Dominic Thiem of Austria, he was forced to retire with a shoulder problem and missed another six weeks on court.

Shoulder just a bump in the road

Andujar returned at the end of March and in his second week back, he won five matches – three of them in three sets – to win the Ferrero Challenger Open.

Right to Marrakech, where the former No. 32 lost just one set on his way to the title. With his opponents having helped pave  the way by eliminating top seed Albert Ramos-Viñolas and No. 7 Alexandr Dolgopolov (himself coming back from injury), it was a smooth path.

Andujar’s ranking when he arrived in Rio in February was … No. 1821. With his efforts the last two weeks, he’ll land just outside the top 150 on Monday. And, if he keeps it up, no longer will need to use his protected ranking of No. 105 to enter tournaments in short order.

At No. 355 this week, Andujar is the ATP Tour title winner with the lowest ranking in 20 years, since a teenaged Lleyton Hewitt won Adelaide when he was ranked No. 550.

And his efforts may well earn him wild cards at a couple of big ATP Tour events coming up in his homeland, in Barcelona and Madrid.

Andujar

Andujar’s parents were on hand to see him take the title Sunday. But he had a special thanks for two more back at home.

“I dedicate this triumph to my son, to my wife, my parents, my physio and my coach. It truly has been two very tough years for me,” he said. “I hope to come back next year – if I’m still around.” 

Popular victory

The news of his victory led to a number of congratulatory Tweets.

(Screenshots from TennisTV)

After two years, Sharon Fichman returns (updated)

There’s no word about whether this is an official comeback, or merely a one-off.

But Canadian Sharon Fichman returned to the court Wednesday, in doubles at the $60,000 ITF event at Indian Harbour Beach.

She played doubles with American Jamie Loeb, against Sesil Karatantcheva and Mara Schmidt. And they won, 7-6 (4), 6-3 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Fichman is still only 27. She’s three weeks older than Milos Raonic, and two weeks older than countrywoman Rebecca Marino.

Marino, as we all know, returned to the court in February after a five-year retirement.

(We’ve reached out for an interview with Fichman. No response so far – she and Loeb were defeated by No. 4 seed Taylor Townsend and Ingrid Neel Friday, 6-4, 6-4)

Two years away

FichmanHer last match came in May, 2016, when she lost in the second round of qualifying at an ITF event in Trnava, Slovakia. Her singles ranking had fallen to No. 362 by then, as she dealt with a series of injuries.

Fichman’s last doubles match came two years ago last week, when she and the now-retired (and newly a mom) Jarmila Wolfe won the doubles at the $25,000 ITF tournament in Jackson, Mississippi.

Since then, she has completed some Tennis Canada coaching courses and worked with some of the Canadian juniors. As well, she has done some television commentary, and will be on the call for next week’s Fed Cup tie between Canada and Ukraine.

She’s dating Dylan Moscovitch, a figure skater who won a silver medal in 2014 in Sochi and retired, like, yesterday.

 

Fichman never officially announced her retirement. Nor did she retire for the purposes of the ITF’s anti-doping program, which would require reinstatement and a three-month period in the program before she would be allowed to return.

So there’s nothing stopping her from coming back.

Fichman reached career highs in singles (No. 77) and doubles (No. 48) in 2014, as she got super-fit and redlined her original, all-court game. 

She qualified and made the second round at both Acapulco and Indian Wells, and was straight into the main draw at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. That year, she won a $100,000 ITF in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France in which she beat Yulia Putintseva, Johanna Konta, Tamira Paszek, Kiki Bertens and then Timea Bacsinszky in the final.

That’s an impressive week for anyone.

But then, the injuries started to get her.

Livestream available

The match was available here. Fichman and Loeb survived to fight another day.

Nishikori back with Dallas Challenger win

Kei Nishikori skipped the Australian summer circuit because he wasn’t quite ready, after dealing with a wrist issue during the offseason.

He missed the first Grand Slam of the season, the Australian Open.

The 28-year-old from Japan is taking baby steps in his comeback – at least by the standards of a player formerly in the top five with 11 ATP Tour titles and more than $17 million in prize money. And a return to the Challenger circuit is the first step. 

Last week at the event in Newport Beach, Calif., Nishikori fell in three sets to American Denis Novikov. Novikov is a 24-year-old ranked No. 214.

But this week at the Dallas Challenger, the No. 1 seed defeated another young American, Mackenzie McDonald, 6-1, 6-4 in the final.

As it happened, Nishikori faced Novikov again in the first round. But this time, he defeated him 6-3, 6-3. 

Nishikori didn’t roll over any of his far lower-ranked opponents on the way to the final. But he got the job done. Better yet, he got some matches in his system before handling McDonald with relative ease Saturday night.

Here he is after his semifinal win over Jason Jung.

Successful return to his roots

Nishikori hadn’t played a Challenger event since the fall of 2010, when he was just 20 but already on the comeback trail from injury. He missed 11 months after elbow surgery in 2009, after being named the ATP’s “Star of Tomorrow” in 2008.

Nishikori’s last ATP Tour event was the Rogers Cup in Montreal last summer, where he lost in a third-set tiebreak to Gaël Monfils in the first round.

The 28-year-old will return to the ATP level in a week’s time, at the New York Open on Long Island.

The New York Open is the relocated Memphis Open, where Nishikori won four straight titles between 2013 and 2016

Encouraging comeback week for Lisicki

She was ranked No. 12 in the world five years ago, and made the Wimbledon final in 2013.

But Germany’s Sabine Lisicki has fallen off the map in recent years because of injuries.

Her ranking is down at No. 246. And her appearance at the Taiwan Open this week was her first of the 2018 season.

So a semifinal finish was far beyond expectations. And the return of that beaming smile and that hard-hitting game would be another add to the top level of women’s tennis, if she can use that momentum and make a run.

Lisicki was down and almost out in her first-round match against qualifier Yuxuan Zhang of China. She came back from a 1-5 deficit in the third set to beat her in the tiebreak. In the quarterfinals, she posted a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Monica Niculescu.

2017 almost a writeoff

The German’s run ended in the semifinals with a loss to Kateryna Kozlova of Ukraine. But her ranking will rise to No. 174 just with this result.

She also appears to have a new coach in Frenchman Guillaume Peyre – at least for the week. Peyre has a long history of working with pro players, including Richard Gasquet, Marcos Baghdatis, Camila Giorgi, Peng Shuai and Tatsuma Ito, and of late has been a national coach in China.

Lisicki

Lisicki is playing on a protected ranking of No. 92. She played just six events in 2017, starting her season at the grass-court event in Mallorca after dealing with a shoulder injury. She injured her knee at an ITF at the end of the season and had surgery.

After that first-round comeback, Lisicki said she had saved three match points in her last tournament, an ITF in Limoges, France last fall, before going on to make the semifinals.

“I was nervous to go back on court, I haven’t played for so long. And I wanted to be on court in front of the crowd for so long,” Lisicki said in her press conference after that victory.

“I’m very happy to be back. It’s a great feeling. I didn’t play my best, I know it, but i was fighting. That’s all I could do. I was fighting 120 per cent.”

Lisicki received a wild card into the qualifying in Doha. She said that she had looked into playing some “challenger” events that week, but there really was nothing available (and she’s right; the biggest are at the $25,000 level – it’s one of the issues the women have, in terms of finding places to play at some times of the season).

After that, she said she’s headed to Acapulco, then qualifying in Miami and Indian Wells.

The plus side of the comeback is that she has absolutely no ranking points to defend until June.

(Screenshots from WTA.TV)

Marion Bartoli announces comeback

Surprised? Not surprised?

Marion Bartoli, who is still only 33 years old but has lived through a few lifetimes since her retirement from the professional circuit, announced Tuesday that she is returning in 2018.

“I am so looking forward to see you again during my matches and share some amazing emotions with you,” Bartoli wrote on Twitter.

Attached to the Tweet is a video where she talks about looking forward to her home Slam, and Wimbledon (where she shocked the world by winning in 2013 without dropping a set) as well as Fed Cup.

The video is shot at an indoor tennis club. Bartoli isn’t even wearing tennis clothes, though. Which is … odd?

The Frenchwoman retired just a month after that Wimbledon title. She was 28, and while she had been a top player for many years, it’s unlikely too many people had her tagged to win a major – especially Wimbledon.

But she did so impressively.

Anticlimactic retirement announcement

Accepting the Venus Rosewater Dish would have been the perfect swan song, if that were going to be it.

But Bartoli showed up in Toronto a few weeks later for the Rogers Cup, where she retired in her second match, against Magdelana Rybarikova.

Bartoli
Bartoli at Wimbledon 2010. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

She pressed on to Cincinnati. Bartoli lost her first match, in three sets, to Simona Halep. It was a match that wasn’t even on the main stadium court.

And then, late in the evenint, after that loss, Bartoli made a bombshell announcement.

Cincinnati isn’t a place where the world’s tennis media gathers, the way it would for a major.

There were a few journalists there, but on a night early in a tournament, around 10:30 p.m., it was about as anticlimactic as the retirement of a freshly minted Wimbledon champion can be.

“I made my dream a reality, and it will stay forever with me, but now my body just can’t cope with everything. I have pain everywhere after 45 minutes or an hour of play,” she said then

Post-tennis life a struggle

Her life since retirement has been – well, it’s been dramatic.

Bartoli involved herself in various fashion ventures, which have made a splash and then sort of faded into the background.

She proved quite an astute analyst on television, in both English and French.

Bartoli
Bartoli was skin and bones at the 2016 Australian Open, which caused a lot of talk. Six months later, she first said it was a completely normal post-career adjustment, then a week later revealed a virus almost killed her. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

She did play some legends events. And it was those moments that revealed her major struggles with weight.

There were extremes; from skin and bones to just the opposite.

At Wimbledon a year ago, Bartoli went on a morning chat  show and revealed that the reason behind her startlingly bony frame was some sort of bug she picked up in India.

The weight loss had been quick, and shocking, and painful.

“I’m praying to God every single day to go back to a normal life. I’m trying. Every time I’m eating a little bit. I am scared of the reaction to my body,” she said.

“Every time I do something I’m scared to see the reaction to my body, it’s a constant fear and now I’m reduced to eating organic salad leaves with cucumber without the skin because my body can’t even process the skin, that’s the only thing I can put in my body.”

Conflicting versions

And yet, just a week before that, she had insisted it was a completely normal post-career development.

Bartoli
Bartoli went to Singapore the first year of the WTA Tour Finals there in 2014, to play a since-discontinued legends event. She looked healthy, barely a year after her retirement. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

“It has happened naturally. My natural frame is quite tiny, that is the way my mum and dad are,” she told the Sun. “I have just gone back to my natural shape. All that shows you is the amount of effort I had to put in to become the tennis player I was.”

Bartoli headed to a facility in Italy shortly thereafter, and told the Times of London at Wimbledon this year that she’d spent four months in bed at a hospital in Paris.

Bartoli
Bartoli on the practice court at the Australian Open in 2015. Three months before, in Singapore, she had looked in good nick.

A year later, she had regained quite a bit of the weight through the summer season. By the US Open last September, she had trimmed some of it off.

Nuts and bolts of un-retiring

There’s no doubt Bartoli isn’t nearly in good enough physical shape to come back to the rigors of professional tennis – the same rigors that had her constantly in pain, and out of the game, at the relatively young age of 28.

Why is she doing it? No doubt that will be revealed in the months before her official return – and when she does return.

Bartoli did put herself on the officially retired list, which has consequences in terms of the ITF’s anti-doping program.

If a player who officially retired wants to return to action, they must sign the papers to that effect, to be officially reinstated.

They also must put themselves back into the anti-doping program, which obviously means they have to provide their whereabouts and run the risk of being randomly tested out of competition at any time.

Bartoli
Bartoli took part in the legends invitational event at the French Open this past June. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The current rules require six months back in the anti-doping program before a player can be reinstated, and thus be able to compete in professional tennis events.

Bartoli’s official retirement date was Dec. 13, 2013. At that time, the period required before reinstatement was just three months. So Bartoli can be grandfathered in on that, and return within that period – if she’s ready.

She says she signed on to be reinstated more than a month ago, on Nov. 12. So she can be back as early as mid-February.

Her goal apparently is to be back for the Miami Open in March. That’s almost exactly three months from now, and therefore would be the first tournament for which she’d be eligible if she applies for reinstatement immediately.

Get your wild cards ready

Another rule change that will come into effect on the WTA in January is the ability of former Grand Slam champions to be granted wild cards into any WTA Tour event they want, with the exception of the Premier Mandatories.

So Bartoli can take advantage of that, as well. But she would need a wild card if she really does want to play the Miami Open, because it’s a Premier Mandatory.

Will Dr. Bartoli be back, too?

There’s a fascinating question, of course, about whether father/mentor/guru/mad scientist Dr. Walter Bartoli will again come back and coach her.

It wasn’t the most conventional father-daughter dynamic of all time – not even by women’s tennis standards – but it worked.

You get the sense that the big thing, for now, is the announcement. And that she may well figure out the rest as she goes along.

It’s a hard story not to root for – as long as she’s competitive and doesn’t embarrass herself.

Even in the 4 1/2 years she she called it a day, the level of women’s tennis has taken a significant leap.

Bartoli
Bartoli interviews Milos Raonic on Court Philippe-Chatrier at the French Open in 2016. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Azarenka’s comeback an overnight affair

You wonder who slept better Tuesday night: Risa Ozaki or Victoria Azarenka.

Was it Ozaki? The 23-year-old ranked No. 74 who would return to the court at the Mallorca Open Wednesday afternoon, and try to serve out the match against a former No. 1?

Or was it Azarenka? The new mother escaped a first-round loss Tuesday night because of bad light. But she still was in big trouble in her first match in more than a year.

We know who probably slept better Wednesday night, after Azarenka pulled off the 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7) comeback win.

“I’m still trying to find my range but mentally, I was there for every point. That and the experience helped me through, even at 40-0 down, I was trying to find my way out of it,” Azarenka told the media in Mallorca. ” wouldn’t say I had the best preparation coming to this tournament, but mentally, it’s better to go through this kind of a match.”

Azarenka was down two breaks against Ozaki in the third set and got one back – then coughed it up. All along, she muttered about the impending darkness; the umpire was having none of it.

More than that, the Belarussian was willing the match to be interrupted so she could come back the next day and try to finish the job. Meanwhile, her less-experienced opponent would have all night to think about what might have been.

Finally, after Azarenka held for 4-5 in the third set, they stopped play.

The Comeback, Part Two

In a third-set tiebreak chock-full of points against serve, Azarenka finally converted on her third match point to make her first comeback match a successful one. Barely.

AzarenkaShe plays No. 7 seed Ana Konjuh in the second round Thursday.

It took another 25 minutes of nervous tennis on both sides. And as she did Tuesday, Azarenka was firing unforced errors long from both the forehand and backhand wings.

Ozaki was broken when she served for it the first time right as they resumed. Azarenka handed the break back – at love – with four unforced errors on her own serve.

Ozaki had 40-0 on her serve, three match points, when she served for it again at 6-5. When she was behind, really behind the eight-ball, Azarenka exhibited more patience. And once she got it to a tiebreak, you had to like her chances.

Maybe.

A player who is broken twice when serving for the match, particularly an underdog like Ozaki, is probably not going to keep her cool enough to finish it off.

Tiebreak full of mini-breaks

The Japanese player was quickly up 2-0. Then 4-2, and 5-3 in the decider. But once Azarenka caught up, the reflexes kicked in. She hasn’t been gone so long that she’s forgotten what to do.

Despite all the unforced errors (41 in all, to go with 30 winners, and including two backhand errors on her first two match points), Azarenka trusted her groundstrokes when she most needed them. At 7-7, she crushed a forehand winner down the line. At 8-7, she crushed a backhand winner down the line.

There was no dab after the win (luckily, that ritual didn’t return with the Belarussian). She even applauded her opponent off the court afterwards.

If it wasn’t as impressive as the return of a certain other former No. 1 this spring, it should be said that while Maria Sharapova continued to train and practice during most of her 15-month doping suspension, Azarenka was … otherwise engaged.

As well, starting a comeback on the unpredictable grass courts is setting a big challenge for yourself. The timing, the dodgy bounces, the lack of long rallies to get rhythm – all were challenges Azarenka faced with relative aplomb.

(Main pics from the Mallorca Open)

Date draws tough foe in comeback (updated)

(Click here for an update on this comeback story).

After 15 months away, Kimiko Date is making another comeback this week at a $80,000 ITF tournament in Gifu, Japan.

Compared to her 12-year hiatus earlier in her career, that’s a mere blip in time.

The 46-year-old didn’t get much draw luck for her first match back, which should be scheduled for Wednesday.

Date drew No. 3 seed Zhu Lin, a 23-year-old from China currently ranked No. 136 who was a semifinalist in Gifu a year ago.

           Zhu Lin

Zhu has some quality wins on her resumé. She defeated reigning Indian Wells champion Elena Vesnina in the first round of qualifying at the Australian Open a year ago. In 2015, she upset Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone twice in a row, at Indian Wells and Miami.

She qualified at the Australian Open this year, losing in the first round to Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. But Zhu is thoroughly unknown outside of Asia. In fact, the last time the 23-year-old even played a tournament that wasn’t in Asia was last year’s US Open qualifying.

Kimiko
Could we see Date at Wimbledon this summer? Her comeback effort in Japan may tell us more this week. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

A 12-year hiatus

Date reached as high as No. 4 in the world back in the Steffi Graf-Monica Seles era. But by age 26, she wearied of the grind. Her limited English just added to her loneliness, so she packed her bags and quit the Tour cold in 1996.

With the exception of one doubles appearance in Tokyo in 2002, Date disappeared … until she resurfaced at this same Gifu event in 2008. She reached the singles final and won the doubles title with countrywoman Kurumi Nara.

By early 2009, she was back in the majors at the Australian Open. By September of that year, she defeated Daniela Hantuchova and Maria Kirilenko among others to win the WTA Tour event in Seoul, Korea.

When she teamed up with Yayuk Basuki of Indonesia for doubles at the 2010 Australian Open, both were 39. Their combined age of 78 had to be some kind of record.

 

Date was competitive against a lot of the best players on Tour with her unorthodox, clever game. She upset Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Tokyo tournament in 2010. Her second-round match against Venus Williams on famed centre court at Wimbledon in 2011 stands out to this day as one of the highest-quality women’s matches there – ever.  

Williams prevailed 6-7 (6), 6-3, 8-6.

In 2013, she became the oldest woman in the Open era (at 42) to reach the third round at Wimbledon, where she lost to Serena Williams.

Birth certificates don’t lie

Despite being in volcanic physical shape – she put players half her age to shame – Date couldn’t deny her birth date. She would go through periods where her quads and knee wouldn’t cooperate. At times, she had trouble going back-to-back days; she might post a tough three-set win one day, but be unable to answer the bell for the next round.

After losing in the first round of qualifying to Amandine Hesse of France at the 2016 Australian Open (see photo gallery above), a match that went to 6-4 in the third set despite Date’s obvious physical issues, she underwent two knee surgeries. But she never thought of quitting.

Kimiko
That there is no quit in Kimiko Date is an understatement. She has worked for 14 months to return to the court. (Photo: Kimiko Date blog)

She returns with a protected ranking at No. 193, which means she could have entered the qualifying at the French Open or Wimbledon if she chose to. So far, she has not. No doubt she wants to save those options for a few months down the road when, knee permitting, she will be more competitive. But she still has time to consider Wimbledon, and definitely think about the US Open this summer and the Australian Open next January.

Date returns with the hyphenated “-Krumm” gone from her last name. She and German race-car driver Michael Krumm divorced during her time away.