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Kamiji & Kunieda Win Gold in the Asian Para Games: First to be Guaranteed Spot in Tokyo Paralympics

The finals for the Men’s/Women’s Wheelchair Tennis Singles event at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games were held on October 12. Shingo Kunieda (Men’s/Ranking #1) and Yui Kamiji (Women’s/Ranking #2) won gold, and with it the right to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. They are the first to be guaranteed spots representing Japan at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. This was Kunieda’s third consecutive victory and Kamiji’s first victory at the Asian Para Games.

Yui Kamiji, who claimed victory at the Asian Para Games for the first time

Shingo Kunieda Roars in Victory, Wins Gold Against Fellow Japanese Player

The scores for the Men’s finals? 6-2, 6-3.
Look just at the numbers, and it seems as if Kunieda enjoyed an easy victory. Before the match, however, he seemed wary of his opponent, telling us, “[Takashi] Sanada’s doing really well this tournament.” And so his victory, when it finally came, was that much sweeter, with his joyful “YES!” echoing through the courts.

Shingo Kunieda, ranked #1 in the world

It was Sanada—who had said before the game that his main goal, more important than winning the right to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games, was to beat Kunieda—that played more aggressively in the first set.
The games were long and tough from the start, with Sanada first gaining a 2-1 lead in the games. He then continued to put pressure on Kunieda with quick plays and deep balls, as well as game points in the sixth and seventh games.

Takashi Sanada, who put up a fierce battle

World champion Kunieda, however, is used to keeping his cool even in tense circumstances.
In one instance, when everybody thought the set would go to Sanada, he clung to rally after rally to win the set himself. “I was aiming pretty strategically with my strokes, but Kunieda’s defense was just better—I was stunned,” said Sanada after the match.

In the second set, Kunieda was able to use his superior level of experience to his advantage. As it got darker, it became harder to see the ball even with the lights. While Sanada struggled to control the ball in these circumstances, Kunieda continued his volley of super-fast returns. “I knew I couldn’t win just by hitting these balls. I had to play with my eyes on that victory,” he said.

Though Sanada had a few opportunities for game points in the second set as well, he struggled to take advantage of them. “It’s not like I’m in bad condition right now, but I guess I couldn’t work past the difference in our levels of experience,” he said, frustrated, after the game.

Kunieda, who pumped both fists in the air and yelled with joy at his victory, was asked about earning the right to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games. “Of course I’m happy. It’ll be easier to manage now that I have that,” he said. His goal, however, is not limited to the Paralympics.

“Our day-to-day work is going on these tours. When I’m asked what my next goal is, I tell them the Australian Open, the French Open. Honestly, the title I’m really gunning for is Wimbledon, which I’ve yet to win. So I’ll be working towards the Tokyo Paralympic Games while battling through the Grand Slam,” he said, in a level-headed comment.

Like the last time, Kunieda won the right to compete in the Paralympics at the Asian Para Games

Third consecutive victory at the Asian Para Games

Kunieda getting photo taken with staff members

Kamiji Wins Her First Gold, Defeating a Chinese Player Shrouded in Mystery

The Women’s Singles event started a bit earlier than the Men’s. And so Yui Kamiji earned her victory, and the right to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games, a bit earlier than Kunieda.

“I said at the press conference before the tournament that I was fully prepared, that I was going to go home with a gold medal in the Singles event. So now that I’ve gotten the gold, I feel very relieved,” said Kamiji.

Kamiji in the top spot on the winners’ podium; 2nd place was Zhenzhen Zhu (left) of China, 3rd place Momoko Otani of Japan

In the finals, Kamiji faced off against Zhenzhen Zhu (Ranking #21). Coach Yoshihiro Nakazawa had expressed his wariness of the Chinese players in the tournament. “It just feels like they’re getting better exponentially,” he said. And he was right—Zhu beat Manami Tanaka in the second seed of the first round, and worked up the ranks to make it into the finals.

Kamiji won the first set 6-3, but in the second set, faced a number of break points by Zhu. “The fence is really close to the court, which means I can’t get at the ball if it goes too far back. During the first set I was able to push Zhu towards the back of the court and put pressure on her, but in the second set I really needed to push a bit more,” she said, looking back on the game. She eventually won the set 6-3, however, with a small fist pump for the victory.

Kamiji getting her revenge on the Asian Para Games, with a straight-set win in the finals

“I wonder if the way I’ve felt at the Asian Para Games will be how I feel at the Tokyo Paralympic Games,” said Kamiji, after the game.

Kamiji had competed in the Asian Para Games twice in the past, but had not been able to win gold. In the previous Incheon 2014 Asian Para Games, she had won a bronze medal. In the London Paralympic Games, her first-ever experience in the Paralympics, she was unable to win a medal, and in Rio she had won bronze as well.

Kamiji taking in the victory she had worked towards for so long, with the Japanese flag waving above the courts

“So I was wondering to myself if it would be the same—when I’m there at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, will I be gunning for that gold because I haven’t been able to reach it before?”

Kamiji’s thoughts were already two years in the future.

Koji Sugeno of the Quads Event Wins a Bittersweet Silver Medal

In the Quads event, Koji Sugeno (Ranking #4) beat Shota Kawano in the semi-finals to move onto the finals, but was defeated by Kyu-Seung Kim of Korea (Ranking #12), narrowly missing his chance for a gold medal.

“I can’t sweat, so it’s hard when I have to play more than two sets against an opponent that can. The difference in stamina really made the difference,” said Sugeno, looking back with some regret on the match. He was optimistic, however, going on to say, “But the fact that I was able to get to the finals in this kind of heat has given me confidence. From now on I want to work on the accuracy of my shots.”

Koji Sugeno, who uses his powerful shots as a weapon

For Doubles, Kunieda/Sanada and Mitsuteru Moroishi/Sugeno won gold medals in the Men’s and Quads events respectively, and Kamiji/Manami Tanaka won silver in the Women’s event. The Quads and Doubles events in this tournament, however, did not count towards the players’ rights to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

All in all, including the Doubles events, the Japan national wheelchair tennis team won a total of 10 medals. And 22-year old Tanaka and 23-year old Otani are still on their way up. Things will only get more exciting in the future—we can’t wait.

* World rankings are as of October 8, 2018

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Haruo Wanibe

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