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The Three Best Matches of Wheelchair Tennis Legend Shingo Kunieda (Part I)

As a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games has been postponed to next year, and all tournaments in the Wheelchair Tennis Tour, as of now, have been suspended until July 31. At times, however, athletes have the power to cheer us up and give us the power to move forward, even when society is mired in uncertainty and doubt. Here, we’ve put the spotlight on the most famous para-athlete in Japan—Shingo Kunieda of wheelchair tennis. We asked writer Tomoko Sakai, who has covered the wheelchair tennis legend since Athens 2004, about three of Kunieda’s best matches.

Shingo Kunieda’s Major Achievements

27 Grand Slam titles!
2020: Singles title at the Australian Open, etc.

Won medals in four consecutive Paralympic Games!
Athens 2004: Gold medal (Doubles)
Beijing 2008: Gold medal (Singles), Bronze medal (Doubles)
London 2012: Gold medal (Singles)
Rio 2016: Bronze medal (Doubles)

(1) Finals Match, Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games
Kunieda Wins a Gold Medal, Solidifying a Generational Shift

In his moment of victory, Kunieda raised his face to the sky and let out a roar. On September 15, 2008, on the center court of the China National Tennis Center at Beijing Olympic Park, Kunieda had become the true king of wheelchair tennis.

His opponent in the Beijing 2008 finals was Robin Ammerlaan of the Netherlands, ranked No. 2 in the world. At 40 years old, Ammerlaan was a seasoned wheelchair tennis player that had won a Doubles gold medal in Sydney 2000, and a Singles gold medal in Athens 2004, and had long served as a leader of the sport.

Kunieda went into Beijing 2008 after winning the four Grand Slam tournaments
photo by Getty Images Sport

The finals match for Beijing 2008 saw Kunieda on a winning track right from the start. In the first set of the first game, immediately after the start of the match and with Ammerlaan serving, Kunieda nabbed two consecutive return aces, putting himself in the lead. You could even say, considering what happened after, that this is what won him the match.

Though Ammerlaan attempted a variety of techniques, including his famous drop shot, to one-up his opponent, none of it was enough to break Kunieda’s composure. After a series of service and return aces, Kunieda won the first set, 6-3. He would go on to win multiple consecutive games in the second set as well. And after two consecutive double faults by Ammerlaan, Kunieda won the match, 6-0.

Finals match for Beijing 2008, held on the center court of the National Tennis Center at Beijing Olympic Park
photo by X-1

It was in October 2006 that Kunieda had become the No. 1-ranked player in the world for the first time. For some time afterwards, he ceded his position to another player, but in January 2007, he became No. 1 again—a ranking he then maintained for a while after. His performance in 2007, when he won all four Grand Slam tournaments and led Japan to its second victory in the World Team Cup, was particularly impressive, and showed off his incredible skill relative to the other players.

Kunieda at Beijing 2008, when he became the first Asian wheelchair tennis player to win a gold medal (center; silver medalist Ammerlaan is on the left)
photo by X-1

At the time, the world of wheelchair tennis was experiencing a shift. Kunieda had begun to use a technique called a topspin backhand, which requires both power and speed—and which nowadays is commonplace—in his competitive matches, a move that was ushering in new skills and techniques in the world of wheelchair tennis. Indeed, when Kunieda defeated Ammerlaan and won that gold medal, it marked the beginning of a new era, one in which Kunieda would be the king of wheelchair tennis.

(2) Finals Match, London 2012 Paralympic Games
His Second Consecutive Paralympic Gold Medal, This Time Following an Elbow Surgery

In the four years since Kunieda’s gold medal in Beijing 2008, the wheelchair tennis world had undergone dramatic change. Kunieda’s presence had driven the other players to work on and improve their skills, and everything—from the shots to the chair work, wheelchair control, and match progression—had more speed to it. In four years, the world of wheelchair tennis had been utterly transformed.

Kunieda went into London 2012 as the reigning champion
photo by Getty Images Sport

By the time the London Paralympic Games rolled around in 2012, it was a toss-up as to who would win the gold medal. Kunieda had undergone elbow surgery in February 2012, and had only returned to the Wheelchair Tennis Tour, which requires going back and forth to domestic and overseas matches, in May—less than four months before the Paralympic Games in September. These were difficult circumstances. Ultimately, however, Kunieda went into London 2012 ranked No. 2 in the world, and made it all the way to the finals.

His opponent in the finals match was Stéphane Houdet of France, ranked No. 1 in the world. He was a rival of Kunieda’s, one he had battled countless times, and who was known for his powerful shots. Kunieda’s 106-win streak from January 2008 to November 2010 had also actually been ended by Houdet.

*World rankings are as of that time

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This article is continued on The Three Best Matches of Wheelchair Tennis Legend Shingo Kunieda (Part II)

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