“The No.1 Player?
Shingo is No.1,
Without a Doubt.”
A rival is someone who makes one grow both as a player and as a person. The rivalry can be an obstacle to each other at times, but other time it may be a driving force that motivates you to go further.
“Shingo is indispensable to me.” .
said wheelchair tennis player Stephane Houdet. The French man is a top player in men’s wheelchair tennis and is also the biggest rival for Shingo Kunieda from Japan.
According to the record, Houdet and Kunieda have played 46 singles matches against each other since their first match-up in 2006. Winning only 10 matches out of them, Houdet has fallen behind Kunieda. However, the matches between them were always so intense and close behind the numbers of match results and scores. In fact, it was Houdet who stopped Kunieda’s singles game winning streak at 107 in 2010.
Houdet increases his presence especially at the French Open. This is because a clay court making a ball bounce higher gives a great effect on his serves, which reach a maximum speed of 160 km/h, and dynamite stroke, which hit from a high impact point. Houdet met Kunieda five times at the French Open, and three of them saw a full-set ending. They had fierce fights in the final in 2012 and 2013. Houdet seized epic victories both times.
Houdet became the world’s No.1 in the men’s singles world ranking for the first time in June 2012, but he ended up being a runner-up to Kunieda on the same year at the Paralympic Games in London. Houdet has made a comeback to world No.1. There is a common fact to be noticed behind his reign. Kunieda was forced to be off from the season after the surgery on his right elbow due to the injury both 4 years ago and this year. Houdet himself is well aware of it.
“Am I the No.1 player in the world? No. It’s only because Shingo is not playing. Shingo is the No.1 without a doubt.”
said Houdet with a serious tone, who had a tender expression during the interview. It was the moment that reminded us of the dignity of top athletes.
Refining His Tennis
Against Strong Players
Houdet was born in 1970 and is currently 45 years of age. Although wheelchair tennis players can generally enjoy a longer career than able-bodied tennis players, it must require enormous effort to capture the reign at his age, particularly under the circumstance where hard hitters dominate in male’s wheelchair tennis.
What kind of training does he engage in? When we asked about his secret, we got an unexpected response.
“I don’t really like resistance training at the gym. So, I play squash or enjoy paddling!”
The French star said he is “pretty amazed” whenever he sees Kunieda spending a good amount of time on stretching. Houdet must be taking care of his fitness too, but when we see him at a competition venue, he is relaxing by listening to music in the shade or playing with his smart phone even in his waiting time for a match.
How has he developed his tennis skill? He responded “I like to play tennis. Playing tennis is how I train, so I try to play as many games as possible.”
Houdet, who keeps up a good condition through playing many matches, entered in 18 tournaments in 2015 against Kunieda’s 11. This means he takes part in almost as many tournaments as young players in their 20s do. Yet, he has surprisingly never had any tennis-related injuries or surgeries.
“The secret to improve your tennis skill is to try all kinds of things in a match and to learn from other players. That’s why I like playing against Shingo. Everyone knows how good he is. On top of that, he always upholds fair play and is perfectly prepared for games. We play with respects towards each other. That’s why we always have such a great match. It’s like the relationships among Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori.”
Aiming for Two Golds
-Singles and Doubles-in Rio
“I Had a Need to Make the Challenge”
Due to Houdet’s achievement and age, people tend to misunderstand that he had a long career as a wheelchair tennis player. The truth is that he has only 11 years of career, which is not a relatively long. Even though he used to play tennis before his amputation, but it was quite shocking when he claimed the men’s doubles gold medal at the Paralympic Games only three years after beginning to play wheelchair tennis.
Houdet remembered what it was like in the beginning of his career. “When I first started playing, I used to get my finger caught in the spokes of my wheelchair. I couldn’t get to the ball in time either. It was one frustration after another. But it reminded me of how good it feels to play tennis sweating a lot. Gradually, I got used to playing in a wheelchair.” said Houdet. “My tennis life gathers attentions from the public for sure, but I know how to change that attention into a good energy. So I don’t feel any pressure.”
The 46-year-old has strength of mind that keeps him from being distracted by external “noise” to remain focused on what needs to be done. Here is one of examples that show it.。
A left-leg amputee, the Frenchman introduced the new sport wheelchair last year for Rio 2016. He believed that his ideal shots were ones that he had stricken a ball from standing position. He adopted a new carbon fiber wheelchair with a smaller saddle that places him in a position as if he was standing on his knee, so that he can make his hitting point closer to his ideal one. This enabled him to transmit power generated by twisting his torso to his lower body and resulted in making his strokes harder. On the other hand, it was difficult to maintain balance on the new wheelchair. At the Australian Open in January, he was called for a foul by violating the rule to keep one buttock in contact with his wheelchair seat when contacting the ball. He now has a seatbelt in place that deals with this issue.
The new wheelchair has been met with a mixed reaction from other wheelchair tennis players. Houdet, however, made his decision to take the risk of changing the wheelchair that serves as his “legs”, because he believes that this challenge will lead him to the glorious triumph in Rio.
Houdet said, “I am really looking forward to playing against Shingo in Rio. This time, I want to leave the court with top honors.”
How will the match with his predestined rival end? It could be anyone’s guess.
Full Profile Houdet was born on 20 November 1970 and from Loire Atlantique, France. He began tennis at the age of 8. In 1996, he was in a motorbike accident that resulted in the loss of his left leg above the knee. He became an amputee golfer playing with a prosthetic leg on, and claimed the national champion title. He began playing wheelchair tennis at his age of 34, in 2005. It didn’t take long until he came to the fore. He won doubles gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, and then took a Paralympic silver in the singles at London 2012. He is the world NO.1 in the ranking (June 2016). He is a father of two pairs of twins.
text by Miharu Araki
photo by X-1