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Shingo Kunieda, Wheelchair Tennis Legend: His Growth and His Thoughts on Winning Gold at Tokyo 2020

“I don’t feel any sort of pressure. I don’t think people expect me to win gold as much as they used to.” So said Shingo Kunieda, his face relaxed. He’s been in four Paralympic Games so far: Athens, his first Paralympics at 20 years old; Beijing, which he went into as reigning world champion; London, which he faced after an elbow surgery; and Rio, where an injury kept him from performing at his best. Now Shingo Kunieda, star of the parasports world, faces his fifth Paralympics—this time in Tokyo. What are his thoughts as he moves towards it?

Ending 2019 with a Record-High Win Count

Last year, in 2019, Kunieda had gone his entire season without winning a Grand Slam title—a title from the four major tournaments on the wheelchair tennis tour. It would seem from an outside point of view that he’d be dissatisfied with his performance over the year. However, last year had also seen Kunieda—currently ranked No. 2 in the world—rack up the most wins of any year in the past.

For Kunieda, who competed in many matches in 2019, the season was a very meaningful one

Shingo Kunieda (hereafter “Kunieda”): I wasn’t satisfied with my performance in the Grand Slam tournaments, but when I think back on it, I was able to win nine tournaments last year, and a total of 53 matches—the most matches I’ve won of any year in my career. So in that sense, it might’ve been a good year.

Kunieda had won 52 matches in 2007, at the age of 23. This was also the same year he claimed all three Grand Slam titles, won the World Team Cup, and was just coming into his status as the undisputed king of wheelchair tennis. Now, 12 years later and at the age of 35, Kunieda has managed to beat his record from that momentous time.

Kunieda: I think I was just too tense at the Grand Slam tournaments, went in too hard. And that’s why I couldn’t win. It might also have had something to do with how everyone just plays better at the Grand Slams, since these tournaments are obviously really important for the other players, too. But the fact that I was able to win nine other tournaments tells me that I had the opportunity, probably, to win a Grand Slam, too. The fact that I didn’t probably points to me being off-balance emotionally, and not being able to play like I wanted to.

Though he was unable to claim a Grand Slam title, Kunieda was able to win four out of the six tournaments in the Super Series, the series just below the Grand Slams. He, however, has been more focused on his eight losses than on his record-high number of wins.

Losses Are an Opportunity to Change What You’ve Been Doing

Wheelchair tennis legend Kunieda, with a satisfied expression on his face

Kunieda: I lost eight times in 2019, and each of those losses gave me the opportunity to change what I’d been doing until then. For example, when I lost to Alfie Hewett (UK/No. 4 in the world) [at the Wheelchair Singles Masters in November], I started training differently the very next day. And that’s really been working for me so far, so I’m expecting to do pretty well in the 2020 season.

Indeed, his focus is less on winning and more on reflecting on his losses so he can grow from them, learn from them. And this, most likely, is the reason why he has remained at the top of his sport for so long.

Kunieda: When I win I’m happy, and when I lose I’m really sad. I think these emotional ups and downs have been even more intense for me than they were in the past. But then the next day, I’m able to think, “Okay, this is a new start.” I think to myself, “What do I do next?” and I think about it really deeply, which is why I tend to come up with more ideas when I lose.

My coach, Tasuku Iwami, also really thinks these moments when I lose, or the day after I lose, are really important. One of us will come up with an idea, we’ll discuss it, and then we’ll try it out. Our style is to keep discussing whether something is working or not, and to figure it out together. And it’s okay if we end up making the wrong decision, because one of us can always say “Hey, we made a mistake,” and we can go back to what we were doing before.

Kunieda’s face always lights up when he talks about learning new skills. Once, when he was trying to improve his backhand, he had an epiphany about a technique that would make it better, while standing in the elevator for his apartment.

Kunieda: Even now, I’ll get these little flashes of insight—like maybe it’d be better if I hit it this way. And that’s the kind of thing that I really love about playing tennis. In a second, the forehand that I’ve been using my whole career becomes this new, exciting thing. And these moments are just so incredibly fun for me.

Kunieda made his debut in the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Tour in 2001, at the age of 17. In the 18 years since, he has had an illustrious career, with a Grand Slam, a 107-match winning streak, and two consecutive gold medals in the Singles event of the Paralympics. And yet, even with all of this success, he still works to grow, get better. And that, in fact, may be Kunieda’s most important talent.

Kunieda: I think for me, what’s important is how many more learning moments I get to have over my career. These moments really elevate your skill, so I think how many of these moments you get to experience are what determines the degree of maturation, you could say, of an athlete. And I think the real thrill of it is making sure not to miss these moments when they happen.

Now that I’ve spent so much time in the sport, the ideas come a lot faster than they used to. I come up with more ideas now, and there were a lot especially this year. That’s why I still feel like I have so much room to grow, and why I still feel like I can get a little better by the end of my career.

More Excited Than Nervous for the Tokyo Paralympics

Kunieda after winning his second consecutive gold medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games ©Getty Images Sport

Kunieda has had a remarkable track record at his past five Paralympics, winning a total of two gold medals for the Singles event, one gold medal in the Doubles event, and two bronze medals. It makes you wonder the level of intensity, the level of passion, with which he views Tokyo 2020—his first home-country Paralympic Games. Surprisingly, however, Kunieda himself seemed very relaxed about the whole affair.

Kunieda: I think it’s obvious that the Paralympics will be the central part of my 2020. But what I’m working towards as of right now is the Australian Open. I have to get through the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon before even getting to the Paralympics. I suppose once I’m done with Wimbledon in July, my mindset will shift towards the Paralympics. It all comes down to the kind of tennis I can get myself to play before I get to the Paralympics.

The Rakuten Japan Open, a part of the men’s professional tennis tour, held a wheelchair tennis tournament (Wheelchair Championships) for the first time in 2019; Kunieda was crowned champion

Kunieda’s hope is that after the Paralympics, wheelchair tennis will see further growth as a sport in Japan.

Kunieda: I’m very intense about getting as many people as possible to be fans of wheelchair tennis. It’s not just me—there are a lot of really amazing players. It’d be great if people in Japan become fans of players from other countries, too.

The dream is to have more and more tournaments where the wheelchair tennis championships are held in conjunction with the general professional tennis championships. I think the wall between wheelchair tennis and general tennis is already fairly low compared to other sports, but my hope is that it gets lower and lower in the future. If a lot of people come to watch our matches, one day they might say, “Man, we need to bring wheelchair tennis matches into the center court.” And that would be amazing.

There were children asking Kunieda for his signature at the Rakuten Japan Open

*Rankings are as of December 16, 2019

text by Tomoko Sakai
photo by X-1

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