The five-time calendar year
Grand Slam singles champion
continues to evolve.
Shingo Kunieda is definitely amongst the top of the list of Japan's proud top world athletes. Year 2015 was a year in which he felt that he had evolved as an athlete. After his 8th win at the Australian Open in January, Kunieda continued his winning streak in the singles in both the French and US Open. He also earned his fifth Calendar Year Grand Slam. With such a phenomenal track record, what's even more striking is, his sincere attitude to keep improving despite being the world's number one-ranked player.
Men's wheelchair tennis is said to have entered the “power tennis" era, and has been putting a large emphasis on serves. Kunieda has always had great control and been capable of hitting aces, but when it came to the question of speed, there were many athletes who could serve faster than him. That is why, he focused on improving his serving motion this year. As a result, he was able to serve more powerfully and with greater variation. Furthermore, with a grueling training regimen, Kunieda even managed to improve the agility of his chair work, which is the greatest weapon for a wheelchair tennis player. Loaded with more technical skills, Kunieda's strategies have become more flexible on the court. The enhanced performance of the strong and supple champion was sure to have raised the bar and put more pressure on his rivals who are determined to overthrow the champ.
For any wheelchair tennis player, the Paralympic Games is considered to be the pinnacle of wheelchair tennis. In other words, with Rio just a year ahead, Kunieda's rivals have no doubt been priming themselves mentally and physically this season in preparation for the biggest world stage in para-sports. However, their efforts to drag down the champion from the podium were not enough for Kunieda. "I am delighted by the results, but I'm even more happy about my performance. Even in matches where my opponents were dominating the game at one point, I was able to tell what I need to do in order to reverse the situation and win the game. I think I am experiencing another growth spurt in my career." Kunieda's confidence gleamed as he spoke with a powerful tone.
Ambition to pursue tennis and face up to himself
Wheelchair tennis players travel the world just as much as able-bodied tennis players to compete in tournaments. In the past, Kunieda made a record of 107 consecutive wins in singles in the course of three years. To this day, he has not lost a single game since January 2014 (excluding a championship that he had defaulted).
A champion with this many international victories is bound to be under an overwhelming amount of pressure to win every time. So is the case with Kunieda. When he had achieved his goal of becoming the world's number one player in wheelchair tennis, he almost lost sight of his next step. "You can become obsessed about winning, and forget to enjoy the sport," said Kunieda. At the time, he had difficulty focusing during practice, and was even chewed out by his coach at times. However, after struggling to find his way, he was finally able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. In the end, he realized that his greatest motivator was not his adversaries, but himself.
Although people may think of Kunieda as an invincible player, he assures that he is far from being perfect. Proactively taking on new challenges and perfecting his own style of tennis are his foundations as an athlete, and what leads him to great results. "I have always believed that I can endlessly become a better tennis player as long as I try. That belief is really what constitutes the bedrock of tennis for me. I think it's because that feeling within me has never wavered that I have been able to maintain my number one title over the last ten years. At the same time, if my bedrock is to ever crumble, that would probably be the end of my career. (To be continued.)
Born February 21st, 1984. Lives in Chiba Prefecture. Although a spinal cord tumour leaves Kunieda paralyzed in his lower body at age nine, he discovers the world of wheelchair tennis at age eleven that changes his life. In 2004, Kunieda won his first gold medal in the men's doubles at the Athens Paralympics with Satoshi Saida. Then in 2007, he became the first-ever Grand Slam winner in professional wheelchair tennis. The unstoppable champion has been storming through the world stages of wheelchair tennis throughout his career, claiming gold in men's singles at both the Beijing (2008) and the London Paralympics (2012). In 2009, Kunieda became a professional wheelchair tennis player, and is currently affiliated with UNIQLO.
text by Miharu Araki
photo by X-1