Every morning, I had a ritual that I would do to pump up my energy.
I would look into the mirror and say, "I am invincible!"
Kunieda started tennis when he was eleven years old. His current coach, Hiromichi Maruyama has been his trainer since he was 17. It was around 2002, when Kunieda began competing in international competitions with his coach, that his play style went through its first transition. Despite putting up a good battle, Kunieda could not win against the strongest players of the world no matter how hard he tried. That was when he realized that his strokes, which were his forte, were not enough to compete on the world stage. In order to win, he will need to improve his serves, which were his weak point. It was also when he started focusing on becoming number one.
The four years following the Athens Paralympics were also a major turning point in Kunieda's tennis career. For athletes, the financial cost of being a professional athlete can be a heavy burden, as the cost of travelling the world to take part in international competitions can range between 3M and 4M yen. For this reason, Kunieda had also considered retiring after the Athens Games, but he was saved by his alma mater that had agreed to be his sponsor. Thanks to their generous offer, Kunieda was able to concentrate on playing tennis once again. Around this time, the men's wheelchair tennis was characterized by speed and power. To follow the trend, Kunieda made a hundred-and-eighty-degree shift to his grip, and made 1000 practice swings a day.
In 2006, he succeeded in raising his world ranking to 10th. This was also the year in which he met Ann Quinn, an Australian mental coach who eventually becomes responsible for revolutionizing Kunieda's tennis career. Kunieda's transformation began with a piece of advice that he received from Quinn at the Australian Open. Quinn suggested that Kunieda should change his attitude from 'I want to become number one' to 'I am number one', and train himself to take on this new attitude. Therefore, for the next three to four years, Kunieda diligently followed her advice and shouted, "I am invincible!" to his own reflection in the mirror every morning. By doing so, Kunieda hoped to project the aura of being the best player in the world, both on and off the court. "Although I was skeptical of this exercise at first, I gradually began to feel a difference within me," recalled Kunieda.
"Since long matches can take up to three hours, you can go through an emotional wave. For instance, when I'm feeling discouraged and I need to serve, I sometimes feel worried for a split second that I might hit a double fault. Whenever this happens, I would look at the writing on my racket where I've written, 'I'm invincible!', and read it out loud. Then, I am able to get rid of my negative thoughts."
In 2006, Kunieda successfully became champion at the US Open, and earned his first world No.1 title. After that, it was all uphill. After winning gold at the Beijing Paralympics, he became a professional wheelchair tennis player and went on to win another gold medal at the London Games. Even with this many accomplishments, the phrase, 'I am invincible!', that had given Kunieda the power and determination to become the tennis player that he is today is still his source of comfort and support during times of weakness.
Coach Maruyama, who has been by Kunieda's side all of these years, says that people tend to focus only on the results of his performance, but we must not forget that they are all founded upon an extraordinary amount of hard work. “When he finds himself in a tough situation during a match, he would encourage himself by looking down at his racket and saying, “I've swung this thing millions of times! I can do this!” Only a guy like Kunieda who's actually swung a tennis racket millions of times could say something like this to encourage himself.”
Determined to raise the flag of Japan on the center pole.
Aiming for double gold at the Rio Games.
The Rio Paralympics are less than a year away. "The Paralympics make me feel so nervous and afraid. The feeling is incomparable to that of the Grand Slam competitions," says Kunieda. Despite winning gold at the London Paralympics without losing a single set, the reigning champion remains level-headed. "Scores don't tell the whole story. The other athletes are giving strong performances, and I know all too well the weight of one point that can make or break a game." The fierce matches that are taking place on the world stage are evidently keeping even the strongest of champions nervous.
The key to winning his third gold medal at the Rio Games will be to prepare himself so that he will be in his best condition in September. Amongst all of the medal candidates, Kunieda's experience of having competed up to the end of the tournaments at the last two Games will surely give him a major advantage over the others. Furthermore, Kunieda's ambition is to win his first double gold, in singles and doubles. He hopes that a double gold will give him tailwind to make another great performance at the Tokyo Games.
"I was able to make a lot of changes to my play style this year. Since the bulk of the work is done, I'm hoping to focus more on fine-tuning the details from now until Rio, and eliminating my weak spots as much as possible. My motto is, the bigger the pressure and anticipation, the more joyous it will be to win. I really hope that I can achieve another hair-raising victory and break out in goosebumps on the court."
Having turned the pressure of winning into motivation, the champion's quest for the gold medal unfolds once again.
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