A Story of Rivalry from the Australian Open 2021: Yui Kamiji and Her Rival on the Path to Tokyo 2020
She raced to the ball, but didn’t make it in time. On her face, however, was a smile.
“Dammit! Why did you go there?” she said to herself, her words reprimanding but her expression alive with excitement.
It was the final match in the Women's Wheelchair Singles at the Australian Open 2021.
Yui Kamiji was up against her ultimate rival, Diede de Groot (Netherlands). Kamiji controlled her wheelchair masterfully with her right hand to cut across the court, left, right, up and down. With the racket in her left hand, she reached out to pick up low balls and shoot them back across the net. At times, she would slice the ball and drop it right along the sideline, or she would put a spin on it and hit it deep, demonstrating many shot variations and outstanding precision.
On the other side of the court, de Groot leaned her well-toned body so far forward that she was almost touching the ground with each swing. When Kamiji’s ball bounced high, de Groot went around and hit it with her powerful forehand.
Both players’ heavy breathing and the metallic sounds of their wheelchairs racing across the blue court rang loudly under Melbourne’s midsummer sun.A split second of carelessness would allow the opponent to score a winning shot. Indulging in disappointment would lead to losing control of the game. The tension in the court was strung high.
Kamiji’s Ultimate Rival
Since there had been several cases of COVID-19 infections in Melbourne, the city was under lockdown and no spectators were present at the Open. Nevertheless, athletes and staff members were drawn, one after another, to the courtside by the sheer heat and quality of the match.
At the time of the Open, Kamiji had 15 wins to 18 losses to de Groot.However, a week before, at a prelude game, Kamiji won over de Groot with straight sets. Analyzing seven years of playing against her ultimate rival, Kamiji reviewed their past encounters to anticipate future moves and arrived prepared on the court in Melbourne for their 34th match.
“Diede’s backhand is a lot more stable than her forehand. So she uses her backhand for rallies and her forehand when she wants to make a winning shot. Since I knew that from reviewing our recent matches, I kept it in mind.”
Kamiji had a carefully thought-out strategy and put on an error-free performance
Kamiji said she had rehearsed the match and her opponent’s tactics in her head.
Indeed, without doing so, she wouldn’t have been able to pick up so many of de Groot’s powerful shots and demonstrate such a good defense, no matter how good she is with controlling her wheelchair. However, there was one miscalculation. Unlike in the prelude match, de Groot didn’t immediately go for winning shots and instead persevered in rallies. That perhaps threw Kamiji off and she lost the first set to de Groot. Nevertheless, in the second set, she actively moved forward to the net and worked in short, strategic shots to rattle de Groot’s resilience.
After going neck and neck for the entire set that ended in a tiebreak, Kamiji emerged as the winner. The third and final set, too, was extremely close with both players taking the lead at times but neither getting far ahead of the other.
The smiles that flashed across Kamiji’s face, as described at the top of the article, were mostly seen during the middle of the second set, which featured many high-quality shots and sharp movements. It was as if both players were pushing each other to draw out their best.
“Even though I had a plan, Diede’s power was overwhelming and I couldn’t always do what I needed to do. Sometimes I found myself in bad positions and got points stolen. It wasn’t that I was ill-prepared. It was just that she put on an even more outstanding performance.”
She knew what was happening, but still couldn’t turn the tide. That frustration indicated that both Kamiji and de Groot were playing at levels neither of them had reached before. Frustration and elation were no doubt two sides of the same coin.
In the final set, de Groot consistently got ahead when Kamiji served, driving her into a corner. Nevertheless, when de Groot, as the server, was preparing to start the game that could lead to her victory, Kamiji was calm. She said she didn’t feel pressured or nervous.
“Based on all the other receiving games, I knew what I needed to do, what I needed to watch out for, and what sort of strategy to pursue.”
She stuck firm to her plan and hit one receiving winner after another. Kamiji caught up in the last moment and took the match to a final tiebreak.
Diede de Groot currently ranks No. 1 in the world
The Outcome of the Tiebreak
The tiebreak is a brief and intense battle: the first to reach seven points wins. de Groot, with her superior power and decisive shots, put her all into winning quickly. When Kamiji’s ball went over the line, de Groot won her seventh point. She dropped her racket and shouted in joy. The match was over…or so everyone thought.
That was when they heard the chair umpire say something wholly unexpected:
“The match isn’t over. This is a 10-point tiebreak.”
This stunned not just de Groot, who thought she had won, but also Kamiji. When the final set ends in 6-6, each Grand Slam has its own rules for conducting the ensuing tiebreak to determine a winner. At the Australian Open, the final tiebreak uses a 10-point system.
“I had no idea,” said de Groot later, looking baffled. “I think everybody watching must have thought the match was over at seven points.”
“I later remembered reading it in the rule book, but I’d completely forgotten about it,” Kamiji added with an embarrassed laugh.
The one who had more difficulty putting her concentration back together was Kamiji, who had already accepted her defeat.Once the match was resumed, de Groot scored three consecutive points, and this time won the drawn-out match for real. A look of relief passed across her face as tears welled up in her eyes.
“It’s a shame that there were no spectators. It was a match I wanted everyone to see,” she said during the award ceremony with a proud smile.
Kamiji, too, said she wished more people had been watching. She said so out of pride, noting that very few of the points scored were due to unforced errors. It was an incredibly high-level match. Such a match was only made possible thanks to de Groot’s existence as Kamiji’s ultimate rival and best co-player. At the same time, Kamiji said the fact that she had played according to plan and still lost indicates the difference that lies between her and de Groot. She accepted this and renewed her resolve to close the gap between them.
The winner, de Groot (left) and Kamiji, who failed to defend her title as the Australian Open champion
text by Akatsuki Uchida
photo by Getty Images Sport