Six minutes shy of 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, spectators at the Bank of the West Classic saw the start of a second round match between the fourth seed, world number 11 Karolina Pliskova and a qualifier, 173-ranked Kimiko Date-Krumm. Given that this WTA event takes place on the Stanford University campus, it was fitting that it also had a highly didactic quality.
The contrast was vivid. Here was Pliskova, 23 years old, a tennis ingénue who in time should make her big breakthrough. And certainly if or when that happens it will be big, Pliskova’s 6’ 1” frame helping her snap off one lightning bolt after another. Date-Krumm is 44 and stands nine inches shorter. Tempting as it to describe Date-Krumm as a player from an era when it was all about finesse, it should be noted that even in her vintage years, Date Krumm earned a living more as treacherous counterpuncher than assertive prosecutor. Ranked as high as number four in the world in 1995, the next year Date-Krumm reached the semis at Wimbledon, taking out a Pliskova predecessor, Mary Pierce, in the quarters, before losing a tight three-setter to rangy and powerful Steffi Graf in the semis. As the New York Times reported on that match, Graf was “disarmed by Date’s clever playmaking, which pulled its pace from Graf’s own power.”
Legend by now is the tale of how Date-Krumm took 12 prime years off tennis, returning in 2009 at the age of 38. Over these last half-dozen years, she has earned a reputation as a fine early round story, mostly for yet again tormenting opponents who dare abandon an essential tennis principle: Tennis is not about hitting. It’s about movement, timing, awareness – and then, and only then, does hitting enter the picture. In Date-Krumm’s first match at the Bank of the West Classic, she’d rallied from a 6-1, 4-1 deficit to unravel yet another big banger, 2013 Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki.
The same plan was in place versus Pliskova. Date-Krumm’s superb fitness, mental flexibility and extremely compact strokes have always given her the ability to hit the ball surprisingly early, absorb incoming pace and find more remote crevices of the court than you’d find on a toasted English muffin. Watch Date-Krumm and you also see that tennis heavily revolves around matchups. In other words, tennis is also a relationship game. “She drives you nuts,” said a spectator after Date-Krumm had struck a forehand behind Pliskova. “She doesn’t give you anything solid to hit.” Is she supposed to?
At the Pliskova end, everything from the erect posture of newly sharpened pencil to her poker face gave off the impression that Pliskova was eager to dispatch Date-Krumm the way you’d flick an ant off your arm. After all, a year earlier, when Pliskova was ranked 45th in the world, she had taken just 71 minutes to dispatch Date-Krumm at this same event, 6-1, 6-3.
But Date-Krumm came out on this day committed to emptying the bucket. Serving at 1-1, 40-30, she served-and-volleyed and was witness to a crackling crosscourt backhand return winner. It hardly mattered. On the next point, Date-Krumm hit a dropshot that Pliskova fumbled at like a beginner. Date-Krumm went up 2-1.
It was a match you’ll often see at a local facility between an adult and a junior: the clever veteran versus the powerful youngster. Youth had the weapons, but would they be appropriately harnessed? At 2-2, Pliskova struck service returns long. Date-Krumm also earned her share of openings with slice backhands that hardly conjured up those of the great Ken Rosewall. Again and again, she exposed Pliskova’s lazy footwork. With Date-Krumm serving at 4-4, 30-15, Pliskova hoisted a fine lob over an incoming Date-Krumm, but failed to take advantage of it by coming forward. Up came a deep lob from Date-Krumm, which a baseline-anchored Pliskova cracked wide right. Ah ha, says the elder, you know little of court management. Dare youth think it can conquer real estate from anywhere? Guess again, my child.
Then came the moments of truth. At 4-5, 15-30, Pliskova double-faulted. Set point number one was erased with a 111 mph serve down the T. At 30-40, Pliskova gave Date-Krumm a taste of her own medicine, contempuously striking carving a sidespin forehand that earned her the point. Soon it was 5-all – and then the allegedly wiser opponent blinked. Too clever for her own good, Date-Krumm at 30-all made a tactical blunder by trying a drop shot. But at break point Pliskova netted a backhand in rather banal fashion. Deuce and Pliskova struck so hard and deep that Date-Krumm could only scrap out a one-handed lefty forehand (she is, by the way, a natural lefty) that opened up the court for an easy volley. Date-Krumm double-faulted – and though it took a while, these two games made the match, Pliskova going on to take it 7-5, 6-2.
Each will continue on her path. Date-Krumm remains supremely fit and appears to thoroughly enjoy the challenges that accompany competition. Although Date-Krumm’s ranking likely won’t now crack the top 150 after Stanford, beating a player of Lisicki’s caliber will undoubtedly boost her confidence.
Pliskova will next week be in the top ten for the first time in her career. Along with the likes of Garbine Muguruza and Madison Keys, she is part of the next generation of contenders, each armed with impressive ball-striking skills. At Stanford versus Date-Krumm, Pliskova’s education continued.
Oakland-based Joel Drucker has been covering the Bank of the West Classic since 1983. He writes regularly for Tennis Channel, including work as story editor for the network’s coverage of each of the Grand Slam events.