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

*This article is a continuation from The Three Best Matches of Wheelchair Tennis Legend Shingo Kunieda (Part I)

It was September 8, time for the finals match for the Men’s Singles event, and the sky above the center court, located on Eton Manor in Olympic Park, was painted pink from the sunset.

The center court for the London 2012 finals match
photo by Getty Images Sport

From the start, Kunieda’s plays were calm and collected. He broke two Houdet service games in a row, coming out 4-1 in the lead. After this, however, he lost two games in a row to Houdet, and it seemed for a time that the tide of the match had shifted. That is, until the eighth game, when Kunieda’s aggressive forehand stroke hit right on the line, bringing the score to 5-3 and bringing an end to the shift toward his opponent. Kunieda went on to win the first set 6-4, and stayed ahead of Houdet the entire second set, eventually taking the set 6-2 and winning his second consecutive Paralympic Games.

Kunieda had undergone surgery in February, gotten to a racket in April, returned to the tour in May, and then gone on to win the Paralympic Games. This was a feat that was only possible, it seems, due to Kunieda’s incredible mental fortitude.

(3) Finals Match, Australian Open 2018
A Full Comeback After a Long Struggle

It was January 27, 2018, and Kunieda was battling it out in the finals match for the Australian Open, in the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne Park. His opponent was his perpetual rival Stéphane Houdet, who he’d faced in five Australian Open finals matches. Kunieda, at the time ranked No. 5 in the world, was facing him as a challenger.

Finals match for the Australian Open, held in the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne Park
photo by Getty Images Sport

The match was a close one, and the two went into the final set with a set count of 1-1. As the set progressed, Houdet led the game count 2-5, even fighting his way to a match point in the eighth game. An error by Houdet, however, would bring the game count to 3-5.

In the following ninth game, with Houdet serving, Kunieda racked up points with two return aces, forehand winners, and more. He also managed a service break with one of his famous backhand down-the-line shot. It seemed, in hindsight, that this game had sparked some sort of awakening for Kunieda. Though Houdet got two more match points in the tenth game, Kunieda managed to hold him off, and in the end, he won the tie-break 6-3, winning his ninth Australian Open title.

Kunieda holding his first Grand Slam trophy in two years and four months
photo by Getty Images Sport

In Rio 2016, Kunieda—who all of Japan had been watching as a gold medal contender—had been defeated in the quarter-finals due to his trouble with his elbow. Because he was mostly unable to return to the tour even after the Paralympic Games, his world ranking dropped to No. 10. Kunieda, however, had always been resilient in the face of adversity. It was around this time that he began working toward forms that wouldn’t put stress on his elbow, a move left him unable to win many of his matches on the tour, even in 2017.

This was his first time winning a Grand Slam tournament since the U.S. Open in 2015. After the match, Kunieda, holding his first Grand Slam trophy in two years and four months, cried, in a rare show of tears. His tears told a story about his journey to the match—the elbow surgery, then dealing with the pain, changing up his form, and refining all of it so that he would be battle-ready—and the struggles and difficulties he’d had to overcome.

Later, Kunieda would reflect on this match, saying that this particular Australian Open was “a Grand Slam tournament [he would] never, ever forget.”

Kunieda’s comeback was solidified with his victory at the Australian Open in 2018
photo by Getty Images Sport

In January 2020, Kunieda won the Australian Open yet again, marking his tenth total Australian Open title and his first in two years. It was natural for everyone to think to Tokyo 2020, imagine his success on that home court Paralympic Games. This season, however, the athletes want nothing more than for the novel coronavirus outbreak to recede, and for day-to-day life to return to normal, worldwide. When asked about what he’d do after the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Kunieda had once said, “It’ll just be the tennis life for me forever.” Our hope is that Kunieda and his incredible tennis will be back for all of us fans to see—in Japan and throughout the world—as soon as possible.

*World rankings are as of that time

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