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Rising Star of Wheelchair Tennis: Manami Tanaka’s Journey from Schoolgirl to Paralympian Hopeful

Manami Tanaka, who will be 25 years old for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, is a responsible young woman who looks out for her friends and teammates. Talking to her, it’s easy to imagine her back in junior high school as the captain of the tennis team, racket in her hands and a smile on her face; outspoken when she needs to be and trusted by fellow students. She was a schoolgirl just like anyone else until an accident made her a wheelchair user. We asked her about her journey so far and why she decided to reach for a Paralympic medal.

Tanaka Began Tennis in Junior High School and Was Immediately Captivated

Tanaka was born in Kumamoto Prefecture and grew up in Saitama Prefecture. She attended the all-girls Fujimi Junior & Senior High School, which is known for successfully sending students to the University of Tokyo. The traditional junior high school uniform is pretty, and many girls in the region aspire to wear it. This uniform was the reason Tanaka started playing tennis.

Manami Tanaka (hereafter “Tanaka”): I gained weight while studying for the junior high school entrance exam, and when I went to get measured for the uniform, the lady there said, “My, you look like the little chubby mascot character for KEWPIE Mayonnaise!” [laughs embarrassed]. So I decided on the spot to join one of the school’s sports clubs and chose tennis. A lot of the members were already experienced players, though, so I secretly attended a local tennis school too [laughs].
Am I easily frustrated when others are better than me? I don’t know. But Coach (Kosaku) Iwano is nodding like crazy next to me right now [laughs].

Editorial note: The interview was conducted remotely in late July.

Tanaka played in multiple world tour tournaments to gain ranking points
photo by Getty Images Sport

The turning point in Tanaka’s life came when she was a high school freshman. She slipped on the frozen stairs of her home and fell on her buttocks, resulting in a spinal cord injury. During her four-month hospitalization, she learned that she was paralyzed from the waist down. “There was, of course, a period when I couldn’t accept the reality,” Tanaka admitted.

Tanaka during a press conference at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games

Tanaka: I was continuing tennis in high school, so I was determined to return to the club no matter what. In a sense, I luckily didn’t have much time to be depressed since I was so busy trying to figure out how to earn my credits and deciding what to do with my future. Our club supervisor, Mr. (Hiroki) Nakajima, told me to come back as a player. He said he’d prepare the necessary facilities. The school, too, hurriedly made accessible restrooms and slopes for me.

Mr. Nakajima reflected back on those times and said, “Even with an impairment, there are still many things you can do, so I didn’t want Tanaka to give up hope.” Seeing her grit and resolve, many of her friends must have felt the same way. After returning to school life, she took PE classes just like everyone else and on sports day, she drew a crowd with her creative dance performance. As a member of the tennis club, she also participated in a private high school tournament. These fulfilling days led Tanaka to make a big decision.

Tanaka: I was blessed to be able to spend high school just like everyone else, but I felt that I wouldn’t be able to convey my gratitude by just doing normal things. I wanted my friends to be able to say, “I’m proud to be friends with Manami.” So when I was in my senior year, I decided to aim for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which had just been announced. To make that happen, I knew I had to focus solely on tennis, just like world-famous Yui Kamiji, and not try to balance it with academics. So even though I’d been accepted into university, I chose not to go and dedicated myself to sports.

Stepping onto the World Stage as a Competitive Athlete

After graduating high school, Tanaka focused on training and two years later in 2016, she joined Bridgestone Sports Arena, where she is still a member today. She was able to devote herself even more to training, and Coach Iwano—who had been mentoring her since high school—was also there. Her efforts bore fruit and in 2016, she won three singles at the Sendai Open, Osaka Open and Taipei Open. She was also selected to represent Japan for the 2016 BNP Paribas World Team Cup for the first time.

In 2016, Tanaka joined Bridgestone Sports Arena and dedicated herself to life as an athlete

This, however, worked greatly to her advantage. After going back to master the slice from the basics, it has now become a great weapon for drawing out her powerful forehand, which is her specialty.

Tanaka: When I hit a good backhand slice, the ball doesn’t bounce much, so there’s a high chance my opponent will toss the ball up in the air. When that happens, I hit it back with a forehand. This combination is something I’m good at. Now, even if I’m struggling, I’m confident of making all my backhand slices work.

As Tanaka improved her skills, her international ranking also rose. In 2015, she was ranked No. 41, but by 2018, she was No. 10. Many of the matches she played during these years became confidence boosters. One of them was the ITF 1 Series Birmingham Canadian Wheelchair Tennis Classic, held in August 2017. Following Grand Slams and the Super Series, ITF 1 Series tournaments are the third most prestigious. Many top-class players gather to compete. There, Tanaka made it to the doubles final.

Always in Her Heart is Gratitude for her Teammates

Tanaka is currently ranked No. 14 in the world. She couldn’t fulfill her goal of playing in a Grand Slam in 2019, but in her seventh year as an international athlete, she now has a clear image of the style that she wants to achieve.

Tanaka: It’s to make the first move and win; an attack-before-being-attacked sort of style. For example, Yui plays with a defensive style, positioning herself behind the baseline and moving widely. I play with a more offensive style closer to the net.

I want future wheelchair tennis players to see that this sort of style is an option. I also hope people watching will want to cheer me on when they see me playing in a way that’s true to my character and having the courage to play offensively.

Aiming for a top 10 rank with an offensive style

How does Tanaka feel about the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, which she has been aiming for since high school, being delayed to 2021?

Tanaka: I’m focusing on the positive side of it, which is that I get a little extra time to prepare. To be honest, I may not have made it if it had been held in 2020. So I want to use this time to hone my skills even more so that I can reach a medal and also, once again, so that the people I owe so much to can say, “I’m proud to be friends with Manami.”

——Not surprisingly, the interview ended on a note of gratitude to the people close to her. A pure “thank you” to those she loves. That feeling is what drives Tanaka to become stronger, and with that kindness and love in her heart, Tanaka continues to sprint toward the Paralympic medal.

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by X-1,Haruo Wanibe

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