A Different Topspin! Women’s Wheelchair Tennis’ Yui Kamiji Beats Fated Rival, Moves to First Final
Yui Kamiji, who is competing in wheelchair tennis in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, trounced Aniek van Koot (Netherlands) 2 to 0 in the women’s singles semifinal on September 2, clinching her advance to the final. With Kamiji’s overall record of 35 wins and 19 losses, as well as her eight-match winning streak, the pairing was advantageous, but Kamiji lost to van Koot at the last two Paralympic Games. She was also unsuccessful against the Dutch pair of van Koot and her partner in the doubles semifinal the day before, which Kamiji joined paired with Momoko Ohtani.
On defeating a longstanding foe who stood in her way, Kamiji said, “She’s someone I couldn’t help being aware of. This time, finally, the third time was the charm. This is a world I couldn’t have imagined when I first took part in the London Paralympic Games, so it’s a very happy feeling, but I’m thinking about how to win the final.” Although Kamiji was relishing her joy, she had already shifted her attention to the next day’s final.
Gaining Confidence from Commanding the Fourth Game in a Fierce Struggle
Kamiji dominated the match 6 to 2 in both the first and second sets, but it was by no means easy. The fourth game of the first set, which she came into with a 2-to-1 lead, was an especially fierce struggle. There were repeated deuces after the players drew even from 30 to 40, and Kamiji fended off a game point from her opponent six times in this game alone.
Withstanding shots from her opponent, who powerfully jolted her with a slice followed by a strong drive, Kamiji returned fire with moves such as using a sharply angled backhand to create a chance for herself, leading into a forehand wallop. In the end she persevered through the rally, tripping up her opponent and winning the game after the eighth deuce. Kamiji then gained even more confidence from commanding the fifth game, making it a love game.
Kamiji, member of the Japanese national wheelchair tennis team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games
The tenacity Kamiji showed in the fourth game was cultivated over the past five years. She spent her time acquiring new skills after the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Unlike her former self, her continued desire to aim for the top was enlivened by adverse circumstances. That can also be understood from Kamiji’s comments after the match:
“I changed my mind about whether it was OK to lose here. I came feeling I wanted to compete against Aniek up to the semifinal, but I don’t think that’s enough. Seeing Diede (de Groot, of the Netherlands) win her semifinal match just before and advance to the next round made me think strongly that I wanted to go up against her in the setting of the final, so that’s how I was able to pull ahead.”
A fast, powerful backhand topspin
Kamiji was born with a spinal cord disability, started wheelchair tennis at 11 years old, and made her Paralympic debut at the London 2012 Games when she was in her third year of high school. After that, she developed into a world-leading player and won the French Open in 2014. She claimed the bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. In 2017, she accomplished the remarkable feat of winning three out of four Grand Slam tournaments.
Kamiji had been working on her backhand topspin shot since before the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Controlling this shot is difficult compared with a slice, which can be controlled effectively, but the topspin is faster and more powerful. Kamiji got the feel of the shot in her hands in the spring of 2017, adding an alternative to her backhand that had previously only hit slices.
The topspin’s effectiveness also became apparent in the second set of this match. When Kamiji had maneuvered her opponent back and forth with the sharply angled shot of her backhand, she drove her opponent to the back of the court with a strong line of fire from her forehand and prevented her opponent’s counterattacks.
Different from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
Even Kamiji herself cited her backhand topspin shot as the reason for her victory:
“Her (van Koot’s) slice has a lot of power, and she can add an angle, too. It’s at the level of the first or second best in the world. But by hitting a topspin, I can determine that, if it’s at this angle, only a cross-court shot (for the return shot) will come flying back at me. A topspin is really effective because it means I can put limitations on her in order to prepare for my next shot.”
Kamiji also strengthened herself physically to be able to handle the swing needed to control her topspin. Both her power and skill were different from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. The match brought out Kamiji’s accumulated accomplishments.
Kamiji strengthened her backhand and expanded the range of her tactics.
On the 3rd, in the next day’s final battling against women’s champion de Groot, Kamiji is at a disadvantage in this year’s win-loss records, with one win and five losses. Still, she will make use of her increased shot options and strive to bring those options to a match that unfolds in a way to make her opponent think.
“I haven’t worked so hard just to reach the final game,” Kamiji stated.
Kamiji is not satisfied even if her first silver, or even gold, medal is decided. This is the culmination of the five years since the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Japanese ace Kamiji is going after the gold-medal win.
text by TEAM A
photo by kyodo