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2021.09.05

“I can do it”: Shingo Kunieda of Wheelchair Tennis Wins Gold, Proving His Dominance to the World

The wheelchair tennis event at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games ended on September 4. In the finals match of the Men’s Single event, Shingo Kunieda bested Tom Egberink (Netherlands) 2-0, and won his third Paralympic title—his first Paralympic title in eight years.

He’d won his battle against himself. He said, looking back on the match, “I knew, in the end, that this Paralympic Games specifically would hinge on the mental aspects of the battle, not necessarily technique.” He went on to say numerous times that he “couldn’t believe” he’d been able to win gold again.

Playing Like a Challenger

His opponent in the finals match, Egberink had a No. 8 world ranking. Kunieda had had a good record against Egberink, with Kunieda winning all nine of their past matches, and in straight-set victories at that. Kunieda, the gold medal contender playing in his home country, versus Egberink, the challenger with nothing to lose. This particular situation had made the match seem ripe for an upset.

In the end, however, it seemed there’d been no need for concern. Kunieda emerged onto the court wearing a uniform that evoked a roaring flame, with its yellow and red gradation, and played a good game from the very start. Ranked No. 1 in the world, he played as if he himself were the challenger.


Finals match of the Men’s Singles event at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games; Kunieda played aggressively
photo by Takashi Okui


From his very first service game, Kunieda used his powerful shots to overwhelm his opponent and press forward on the court. Egberink fought back, however, with his powerful forehand and backhand slices. The sound of their rackets hitting the ball, and their spirited roars, echoed across the quiet court.

When Egberink broke Kunieda in the first game of the first set, Kunieda was seen shrugging his shoulders up and down, as if to release the tension in his body. He went on to break Egberink in the second game with a powerful return ace, turning the tide again in his favor. The fourth game saw Egberink make a number of errors, after which the match was all Kunieda, with him winning the first set 6-1.

Victory Lap for the King of the Paralympic Games

While Egberink continued to make errors in the second set, Kunieda played an aggressive and determined game, pushing forward to the net to make slice volleys and winning point after point. Despite Egberink being a big server, the success rate of his first serves remained low at 50%, perhaps due to Kunieda’s good returns, and he made seven double faults.

Kunieda went on, pulling through deuces in the fourth and fifth games to win those as well. He clinched his victory in the eighth game, 6-2. The match ended with Egberink’s shot catching on the net.

Following his victory, Kunieda looked over to where the Japan team was sitting, cheering for him, then covered his face, suppressing his emotion as he embraced Egberink. Then he turned toward the stands, which—despite the lack of spectators—had staff members, volunteers, and members of the media all clapping wildly for him, and pumped his fists in celebration, releasing his pent-up emotion. Tears in his eyes, he roared with joy. He raised the Japanese flag high above his shoulders, then went on a victory lap around the court, maneuvering his wheelchair no-handed—the king of the Paralympic Games, having regained his crown.


The king of the Paralympic Games made a victory lap around the court, as the Japan team looked on
photo by Takashi Okui


Panic Sets In, Amidst Immense Pressure

This victory was proof that Kunieda had overcome the fear that had been growing inside of him. Even an experienced, decorated athlete like Kunieda can sometimes be hit with the fear that they will not be able to achieve what they want to achieve, win the titles they want to win. Kunieda is the undeniable leader of wheelchair tennis. He holds a record 45 titles, Singles and Doubles events combined—the most in the world—in the four major tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, the Wimbledon Championships, and the U.S. Open. He’d been crowned champion of the Men’s Doubles event at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, and won the Singles event at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games and the London 2012 Paralympic Games consecutively.

At the previous Paralympic Games in Rio, however, he’d won only a bronze medal for the Doubles event. This was due not only to the appearance of skilled young players, but also his struggles with an elbow injury. He was also struggling under the massive pressure he placed on himself for the Paralympic Games. This season, after failing to win titles in the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon, he’d felt a bit of panic set in.

Kunieda said, “My mottos this time around was ‘I’m the best,’ ‘I can do it,’ and ‘I know what to do.’ I said these things to myself so many times in front of the mirror and on the court. So many times—an insane amount. I don’t know how many times I told myself these things.” He pushed ahead all while suppressing, every time, the fear that would creep up inside of him.


Kunieda yelling with joy in the moment of his victory
photo by kyodo


Drawing More People Into the Sport

Panic Sets In, Amidst Immense PressureKunieda had started playing wheelchair tennis as a sixth-year in elementary school, after becoming paralyzed in the lower half of his body due to a spinal cord tumor at nine years old. Over time he gradually leveled up his game, eventually becoming the world’s top athlete.

In Japan, the media had only begun to broadcast news about para-athletes in a significant way with the confirmation of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Even before this, however, his name had been known to Japanese sports fans, as he worked to promote parasports as a para-athlete.

“I think in 2004, there were more people who didn’t know about the Paralympic Games, but now everyone knows about it. I think there were a lot of people who watched wheelchair tennis this time around as well, and that’s really the best part. The most important thing for me is to get more people to be fans of the sport, so it’d be great if I could contribute to that by winning, if even just a little bit.”

And there, around his neck, shone his gold medal—one befitting the leader of the Japanese parasports world, who has consistently taken on new challenges and overcome considerable difficulties.


Kunieda says he wants to continue to draw people into the sport even after the Paralympic Games; his challenge continues
photo by Takashi Okui


edited by TEAM A
text by Takaya Hirano
key visual by kyodo

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