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Momoko Otani Fulfilled Her Grand Slam Dream and is Ready to Shake Up Tokyo 2020!

It may not have been the way she imagined it, but one tennis player fulfilled her dream in 2020. Momoko Otani, now 25 years old, once wrote in a school graduation essay that her dream was to become a professional tennis player and compete in the Grand Slams. With large, bright eyes, Otani shines like the sun. “There’s a lot that I realized only after I became a wheelchair user, so I’m happy with my life now,” she says with a cheerful smile.

A runner-up at her second Grand Slam tournament

It was August 2020 at the US Open. The moment to finally make her dream come true. Otani, who once competed in the Interscholastic Athletic Meet representing Tochigi Prefecture, fulfilled her longtime dream as a wheelchair tennis player.

Momoko Otani (hereafter “Otani”): The Grand Slam was so different from other tournaments. The way we were treated was different too, and I got really excited when I saw players who I usually watch on TV practicing right in front of my eyes. On the day before my match, I went to take a look at the court, but it felt so surreal to be standing there, where I had always dreamed to be. So I wasn’t able to picture myself playing at all.

Otani fulfilled her dream of competing in the Grand Slams at the US Open
photo by Getty Images Sport

Otani was thrilled to be fulfilling her dream. But the excitement derailed her and she was soundly defeated by Japan’s ace player, Yui Kamiji. “I wasted the opportunity,” Otani said with regret. The bitter experience changed her and she didn’t make the same mistake at Roland-Garros (French Open). She defeated world No. 1 Diede de Groot (Netherlands) in the semi-finals and made her mark as the runner-up champion.

Otani: My first round was against a South African player who I had never been able to beat before. But I knew that if I couldn’t win against her, the Grand Slam dream would slip through my fingers. That pressure and the lesson I learned at the US Open forced me to fully prepare myself mentally.

Otani’s efforts paid off and she scored a victory in that first round. Then in the semi-finals, she faced de Groot, who is known for her fast shots. Otani decided to take on some risk and return those shots with slower balls aimed right along the lines. Although she usually excels in lobbing the ball and carrying on rallies, her strategy this time was to score return aces and finish the match quickly. It worked. Otani defeated the formidable de Groot with straight sets.

Otani: With the Grand Slam experiences, 2020 was a really good year. Graduating from university and starting work allowed me to improve my training environment as well. In terms of future Grand Slam tournaments, I want to first do well at the US Open so that I can forget about the previous bitter experience.

As of June 2021, Otani is ranked No. 6, making her one of the top players in the world.

Otani (right) won the bronze medal in the women’s singles at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games
photo by Haruo Wanibe

Otani became a wheelchair tennis player after a period of struggle and self-reflection

In this way, Otani rose to become Japan’s second-best player, but her history in wheelchair tennis isn’t actually very long. She only started competing seriously in 2016 when she entered Nishikyushu University at 21 years old. You would never believe it seeing the cheerful Otani today, but before she started playing wheelchair tennis, she went through a dark period when she closed herself off to the world. After graduating from high school, she started attending a vocational school to become a sports trainer, but two months in, her right leg suddenly started to cramp up. The symptoms soon spread to both hands as well and she began using a wheelchair.

Otani: While I was shut in, I kept thinking about how I was meant to keep living. Seeing me like that, my father took me to watch wheelchair tennis. But when I tried playing, the view from the wheelchair and everything else was different from the tennis I knew. The more I played, the less I enjoyed it.

But Otani noticed something else. It was the wheelchair users who arrived at the court by driving cars on their own. They worked during the week and enjoyed tennis on weekends. Seeing them invigorated Otani and she began to see hope for independence.

Otani: Since then, I started looking at job advertisements. But most of the positions required a university degree. So I decided to get one. I chose a university in Saga, where my father was temporarily posted for work.

Once she started university, Otani, who had always been a sports lover, wanted to do some sort of sport. Other than tennis, that is. She considered athletics or archery, but soon discovered that it would be hard to receive proper training, so she gave up for the time being. Then a little while later, she once again crossed paths with competitive wheelchair tennis.

Otani: My seminar professor invited me to go watch the Japan Open in Iizuka City, Fukuoka. There, I saw Kanako Domori, who I’d previously met, competing against an international player.

The match went on for an incredibly long time. I left with my professor to go eat lunch, and when we came back, they were still playing. I found myself thinking how I’d play, and the strategies I’d use, to end the game quickly if it were me on the court. That’s when I realized I still really liked tennis and decided to give it another try.

Once her mind was set, Otani moved quickly. If she was going to do it, she was going to aim for the Grand Slams. She knew right away that she would need a coach, so she put together her savings and approached Masahiro Koga, who was running a tennis shop and coaching at the same time.

Otani: At first, Masahiro said he couldn’t, because he was busy at the moment. In truth, he refused because he didn’t know anything about wheelchair tennis, so he didn’t think he could do it. But he cushioned his words in such a gentle way that I didn’t realize it and thought, ‘Okay, I’ll come back when he isn’t so busy’ (laughs embarrassedly). After that, he started teaching me little by little and by October 1, he officially became my coach.

Playing in the heat at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games
photo by Haruo Wanibe

A dash to the Grand Slams in four years

From there on, Otani and Koga worked as one on their journey to the Grand Slams. At first, neither of them knew how to go about training, much less tour overseas tournaments, so they had to resort to looking up video tutorials online for a while. Furthermore, Otani wasn’t able to simply transfer the tennis skills she already had to wheelchair tennis.

Otani: I can’t use my middle, ring and little fingers much now, so I have to secure them with a splint and wrap taping around them to hold the racket. I also used to hit backhands with both hands, but since I need one hand on the wheelchair, I didn’t know how I was meant to hold the racket at first.

The way a player grips the racket greatly affects their shots. Otani faced the added challenge of learning how to effectively maneuver her wheelchair. Even though she had played tennis on a national level, when it came to wheelchair tennis, she needed to build a lot of her skills from scratch with Koga. As they groped their way through trial and error, a breakthrough moment came when Koga approached Masaaki Chikawa, who coaches Kamiji, and received coaching advice. All at once, training sessions improved and Otani won the bronze medal at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games. At the Tweed Heads International Wheelchair Tennis Open, held in Australia in January 2020, she lost to Kamiji in the third round, but she played a full set match for the first time and felt a significant improvement in her chair maneuvering, which was her biggest challenge.

Otani: From 2019 on, I spent a lot of time working on my wheelchair maneuvering. Until the tournament in Australia, I didn’t have any confidence and was always consciously thinking of how I was meant to run and hit the ball at the same time. But at that tournament, my body just started moving on its own.

All of her training was suddenly coming alive on the court. It goes without saying that this achievement was what made her the runner-up winner at the French Open. It was also the high points distribution she received at the Tweed Heads International Wheelchair Tennis Open that paved her path to the Grand Slams. Experiencing world-class tournaments make athletes that much stronger, and in early June 2021, Otani won a ticket to Tokyo 2020.

Otani: My dream was always the Grand Slams, so I was more focused on that than the Paralympic Games, but since it’s going to be hosted in Tokyo, I’m excited. Most of the players in the top 10 have lighter impairments than I do, so I want to show people that players like me can still put up a match against them.

The condition of Otani’s hand can change significantly from one day to another. On bad days, she sometimes can’t help grouching to Koga, but she has no intention of stopping and giving up.

Otani was all smiles during the entire online interview

Otani: When I win against players with lighter impairments, I feel especially proud and accomplished (laughs).

Otani also adds that one of the good things about wheelchair tennis is that it doesn’t classify players into narrow classes by impairment. It makes us want to see her triumphant face at Tokyo 2020 all the more as she sets foot into the group of top athletes, faces down her formidable foes and wins.

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by PanoramiC/AFLO

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