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Shingo Kunieda of Wheelchair Tennis, Ranked No. 1 in the World: 2019 as a Year to Build Momentum

Shingo Kunieda, framed as a “challenger” in our interview a year ago, has returned to us a world champion.
“I think I’m due for a win, for a title,” he’d said. True to his word, he won his first tournament of 2018, then went on to win a Grand Slam title at the Australian Open—his first in three years—followed by another win at the French Open. Along the way he regained his No. 1 world ranking, which he had lost in January 2016.
Kunieda thus wrapped up the 2018 season as International Tennis Federation (ITF) world champion. For 2019, however, he is looking to even greater heights.

So Much Left to Give, Just Can’t Get Injured

Shingo Kunieda, who regained his world champion title in the 2018 season

For the whole year of 2017, Kunieda had worked to switch up his backhand form to get past the pain in his right elbow. The end of that year, he began telling others he was “due for a win,” and he started off 2018 making good on that promise.

Shingo Kunieda (hereafter “Kunieda”): The whole year of 2017 I was working to recreate my form, and I really started seeing results around the end of the year. Then, I was able to win the Sydney tournament in January 2018, which was kind of the prelude to the Australian Open. That gave me a lot more confidence going into the Australian Open, and I was able to win there as well. It was truly an unforgettable Grand Slam tournament, and one in which I was able to show my recovery to those around me.

Then, I went into the French Open in June, and I was able to get a repeat victory, go back to being ranked No. 1 in the world. After the Rio Paralympics I remember thinking, “You can beat the younger players so long as you don’t get injured.” In that sense this was an amazing year for me, in that I was able to prove that to myself and to the world.

After his victory in the Australian Open, Kunieda made the decision to terminate his working relationship with Hiromichi Maruyama, his coach of 17 years, and welcomed Tasuku Iwami as his new coach.

Kunieda: TTC (Yoshida Memorial Tennis Training Center), one of the training sites, had sent Coach Iwami to care for me and some other players during the Sydney tournament. There, I went through some sessions with mental trainer Ann Quinn, received advice from Coach Iwami about some new techniques, and just experienced a lot of things that were really good for me. I was thinking after the Australian Open ended that I wanted to bring Ann Quinn as a special advisor, and that was where the change in coaching came in—Coach Iwami speaks fluent English, and I thought he could help me communicate better with Ann Quinn, and I also just wanted to bring some new energy into my game. All these things came together and resulted in me switching coaches.

I think switching coaches has definitely encouraged me to go up to the net more frequently. It’s not like it’s very different from the tennis I’ve always played. But the point of my switching coaches wasn’t dramatically changing my game—it was adding onto it, and in that sense I think the switch has gone well for me.

A Doubles Team that Looks Ahead to the Tokyo Paralympics

Kunieda won the Singles event at the Asian Para Games, and became the first to secure a spot to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics

In addition to the Grand Slam titles, you also won the World Team Cup (country-based team tournament) in your 2018 season, something you haven’t done since 2007. You also secured your spot in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics after winning the 2018 Indonesia Asian Para Games. It’s now only two years until the Tokyo Paralympics—do you have an image of what will happen there?

Kunieda: There’s a part of me that feels like securing that spot in the Tokyo Paralympics—after winning the Asian Para Games in October 2018—was just the cherry on top. I knew that if I avoided injury, that my ranking would most likely get me in the Paralympic anyway. Although I do think it’s been good for me mentally to have been guaranteed this spot. I had to have surgery on my elbow the years of the London and Rio Paralympics, so I’m just praying that I don’t experience that kind of trouble.

It’s also a whole year and a half until the Paralympics—it’s so far away I can barely envision what it’ll be like there. Maybe by the end of 2019 I’ll be able to see a little bit, and then when we enter 2020, a bit more, but I don’t think this will be clear to me until much later.

I think in winning the World Team Cup as well, we were really able to show how many amazing new players we have in Japan.[Takashi] Sanada (second best player in Japan, ranked No. 9 in the world) had a really good showing there, and would always win the very first Singles match for us. I was doing really well in that tournament as well, so I remember thinking, “this could work,” starting all the way back in the preliminaries.

Kunieda and Sanada, who partnered up for the World Team Cup, and also in the Doubles event at the Asian Para Games where they won the gold medal, also competed together in the UNIQLO Wheelchair Doubles Masters (hereafter “Doubles Masters”) in November in the Netherlands, advancing all the way to the semi-finals.

Kunieda: In 2018 I was also able to partner up with Sanada, and compete in the Doubles Masters with him. It was the first time I’d partnered with Sanada in a world-class tournament, and I do think over the next year and a half that we’ll have to discuss what kind of plays we need from each other, and work on things as we go.

When it’s a doubles partnership with a foreign player, the goal is short-term—to win the tournament. But when it’s with a fellow Japanese player, and with someone who I’m expected to partner with a year and a half later as well, we can start thinking more long-term. We discuss plays we want to do now because we want to build it into something else in the future. I think that’s what’s different about working with him. If we’re aiming for the Paralympics, the conversation becomes more like, “Well, if we do this right now we can win more points, but since we eventually want to switch over to this other style, wouldn’t it be better to just try out this new strategy, this new technique?” And that’s something that’s pretty exciting, and that gives me a lot of hope for the future.

Sights Set on the Wimbledon Title

The wheelchair tennis Doubles event has been held in Wimbledon since 2009, but the Singles event began in 2016. Kunieda has won Grand Slams before, but has never claimed a Wimbledon Singles event title.

Kunieda: I know that the way I play doesn’t mesh well with the grass courts at Wimbledon. But I think there’s still a chance for me to win. Gustavo Fernandez (Argentina, ranked No. 3 in the world), who plays the same kind of spin-heavy tennis as I do, has made it to the finals of Wimbledon. It’s also not like I’m doing badly right now, so I do think there’s a chance.

What makes Wimbledon so hard is the way the balls bounce on the court. There’s a lot of irregularity in the way they bounce, and there’s a very strong sense that the ball “skids” over the grass on the court. I tend to play a more spin-heavy kind of tennis, but the kind of plays that work really well on this kind of surface are slices and flat shots. But if I focus too much on those kind of plays, I can lose the rhythm of my own tennis. I think players who aren’t very good with the grass surface can tend to fall into that kind of trap.

Last year was also the first time Coach Iwami had seen wheelchair tennis on a grass court, and so I asked him to observe how much mobility wheelchairs can have on that surface. There was a lot I was able to notice about my tennis by going with him to Wimbledon, and I hope I can use that in my game this season. I think if I retire now I’ll always regret not winning Wimbledon—my only remaining Grand Slam title, so my drive towards that win is pretty strong. I think if I’m able to win at Wimbledon, you’ll see me be incredibly happy.

I think 2019 will have been a good year for me if I can look back at the end of the year on my win at Wimbledon.

Kunieda goes into his 2019 season looking to capture a Grand Slam

Kunieda has been a man of his word—what he says, he backs with action. What does he think of 2019? What kind of year will it be for him?

Kunieda: In 2019, I’ll win all four Grand Slam titles! Or… maybe two? I always really want to win the Australian Open. Winning that title in the very beginning of the year makes everything after that feel a lot easier. So I’ll focus first on doing well in the Australian Open. Oh, and of course I do want that Wimbledon title.

(*Rankings are as of December 25, 2018)

text by Tomoko Sakai
photo by X-1、Haruo Wanibe

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