Shingo Kunieda, Champion Again After Four Years: Men’s Wheelchair Tennis at the Japan Open 2019
The Japan Open 2019 was held in Iizuka City, Fukuoka Prefecture, from April 23-28. The event was also a part of the ITF Super Series, which is considered second in importance to the Grand Slam.
The Emperor’s Cup, which has been awarded to the winner of the Men’s Singles event since last year, went to Shingo Kunieda, who bested Stephane Houdet (France; No. 3 world ranking) 7-6 and 7-5, and who is ranked No. 1 in the world. This is Kunieda’s ninth victory in the Japan Open, and the first in four years. In the Men’s Doubles event, Houdet/Peifer (France; No. 1/No. 2 doubles world ranking), bested Kunieda/Takashi Sanada (No. 8/No. 9 doubles world ranking) and claimed victory.
Kunieda Achieves His Wish to Win the Emperor’s Cup
Shingo Kunieda, ranked No. 1 in the world
A light shower was falling as Kunieda cemented his victory, and raised his fists—and later, at the awards ceremony, the Emperor’s Cup—high in the air. He was all smiles, telling us, “I’m relieved to have been able to win the Emperor’s Cup. It’s something I’ve really wanted.”
Kunieda, Japan’s star wheelchair tennis player, and a world-class leader in the sport itself, turned 35 years old this year. Over the past 20 years, he has claimed a multitude of medals in the Paralympics, and achieved victory in a variety of tournaments. He does, however, lack a title at Wimbledon—added to the Grand Slam series in 2016—and tells us that this title is what has been his greatest motivator in terms of remaining in the sport.
Kunieda has won this tournament eight times already. After his victory over Tom Egberink (The Netherlands; No. 11 world ranking) in the semi-finals, however, he told us, “This one is special,” the reason being the Emperor’s Cup that has been awarded to the winner of this tournament since the previous year. In fact, he had said previously that the “only goals I have left for my career are a Wimbledon title and the Emperor’s Cup.” In last year’s tournament, he had lost to Gordon Reid (U.K.; No. 7 world ranking) in the finals.
Kunieda was vocal during his entire finals match against Houdet, as if in an expression of the commitment he had made to win the Emperor’s Cup. Kunieda had had an impressive track record against the 48-year old, long-time wheelchair tennis player, with 43 victories and 13 losses. He had, however, lost to Houdet in the Bendigo Open in January, and knew he was not to be underestimated, telling us, “You need to be tough mentally to beat him.” Houdet, in fact, is also the wheelchair tennis player Kunieda most admires.
Houdet, a long-time rival of Kunieda, also performed well in the tournament
“Houdet really brought up the level of play in wheelchair tennis. Over the course of my career, I’ve trained to be able to beat him. I’ve played him for so many years now that we have a bit of a Nadal-Federer kind of relationship to each other.”
Kunieda Claims Victory in Rally-Heavy Match
The first set saw Houdet controlling the flow of the match, with powerful serves that echoed through the venue, and Kunieda falling behind at 3-5. After an ultra-long rally in the ninth game, however, Kunieda managed to bring this up to 4-5, and that’s when the flow of the match shifted. “I started being able to make strong shots, and get Houdet to run for the ball,” said Kunieda.
The twelfth game started at 5-6, with Kunieda still trying desperately to catch up to Houdet. He was able to prevent Houdet from winning the set, however, with drop shots close to the net. And during the tie-break, his forehand cross-court shots managed to win him the first set.
The second set saw Kunieda coming out in front, winning a number of long rallies in crucial moments. Of particular note was the drop shot he made during the second game, right as it started pouring on the court, which seemed to embody the structure of the match itself. Kunieda, who had been running back and forth behind the baseline, withstanding Houdet’s shots, managed just barely to get a drop shot in near the net, bringing the game count to 2-0. “Come on!” he yelled in that moment.
After this, Kunieda managed to get Houdet running back and forth to the front and back of the court, unleashing many forehand cross-court shots. And though Houdet continued to catch up to him, with the game count ticking 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, Kunieda didn’t relinquish his lead for the rest of the match. Houdet’s wheelchair technique, as expected, was extraordinary, allowing him to handle forward-backward movement and cross-court shots. But it was Kunieda—who had said to himself, and who had even written on his racket the words “I am the best”—who ultimately came out the winner of this excruciating battle of endurance.
Kunieda, in his second attempt, managed to win the Emperor’s Cup for the first time
Kunieda, the king of wheelchair tennis, has already earned the right to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics. “I’m going to keep myself tense, and take it one day at a time until Tokyo,” he said. In his eyes were a forward-driven momentum, and a strong sense of resolve.
Fast-Evolving Takashi Sanada Comes in 5th in Singles, 2nd in Doubles
Kunieda/Sanada lost in the finals, coming in 2nd in the Doubles event
Though Houdet fell to Kunieda in the Singles event, he and his doubles partner Peifer managed to best Kunieda/Sanada (No. 8/No. 9 doubles world ranking) 6-3, 6-2, and win the Doubles event.
“Houdet was really quick and on his game, and we just couldn’t beat them,” said Kunieda after the match, with a wry smile.
The basic formation for doubles matches in wheelchair tennis is called the “two back,” a defensive position with both players at baseline. This reduces the amount of open space for the opponent, and makes it harder for them to score. However, what makes Houdet and Peifer so good, according to Kunieda, is that “they zero in on any holes in the formation, and get their shots in like getting a thread through the eye of a needle.” Kunieda/Sanada also fell short with regards to their net game.
Even becoming runner-up, however, is impressive for Kunieda/Sanada, considering this is their third time competing as an official pair. Said Houdet, “I was surprised by the strides that Sanada has made in this short of a time. His backhand had a lot of power behind it, and I felt he wasn’t relying as much on power alone.” They had matured as a pair, with Sanada’s progress combined with Kunieda’s stability, and their issues as a Doubles team had been made clearer as well.
Sanada, who competes on the world stage as Japan’s second in line, behind Kunieda
Another point of note was Sanada’s quarter-finals match against Houdet in the Singles event. Though he lost, he had put up a good fight against an opponent he had been powerless against in the past, with the match ending 6-7, 6-7. His dream is to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics, and this year, he will continue training towards his goal of competing in the Grand Slam.
“If I can compete in the Grand Slam, I’ll have more opportunity to play Doubles with Kunieda, and I’ll be able to put the same kind of energy into the Singles and Doubles events,” said Sanada.
It seems men’s wheelchair tennis in Japan is gaining momentum towards glory in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Japan has high hopes for Kunieda/Sanada in the Tokyo Paralympics as well
*World rankings are current as of April 29, 2019
text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Hiroaki Ueno