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【WheelchairTennis】Kunieda Finally Returns to Touring!Victorious at the DUNLOP KOBE OPEN 2017

On April 20–23, the "DUNLOP KOBE OPEN 2017," an international tournament for wheelchair tennis, was held at the Bourbon Beans Dome in Miki, Hyogo. At this event, former world number one Shingo Kunieda returned to competing after an extended break after the Rio Paralympics due to a right elbow injury.

At his first game on the first day of the event, Kunieda defeated Keiji Sakamoto 6-0, 6-0, and on the second day he defeated Haruya Mizukoshi 6-0, 6-1. At the men's semi-finals on the third day, Kunieda (world ranking 11th) effortlessly defeated Kohei Suzuki (world ranking 18th, Japan ranking 4th) 6-0, 6-0. He again demonstrated his dominance, losing only one game during the entire event. Despite Suzuki's powerful strokes in the semi-finals, Kunieda showed some ace serves and winner shots (shots that win the point without the opponent touching the ball) with his backhand strokes. There seemed to be no obvious worries regarding his right elbow, but Kunieda himself is not sure of his complete recovery.

Kunieda restarts at the DUNLOP KOBE OPEN 2017

He only decided to attend this open a week before the event. He says that he finally came back to his normal amount of practice, and wanted to get back the feeling of real games to prepare for the Japan Open in mid-May. "I am glad I was able to play at a real event like this, although there are differences in level of abilities (with other athletes), because in some ways my senses were still sluggish and I was able to get back a lot of the feeling (of competing). There is a certain tension that you cannot get in practice, so I thought I should attend, although I am not sure how well I will do at the Japan Open."

After the games on this day, Kunieda reflected, "I think my performance was 30 points out of 100." He says he played very carefully to avoid pain in his elbow and was "consciously getting through each day in one piece."

Looking for a new phase with form improvement

Kunieda was the star of 2016, the year of the Paralympic Games, but he had surgery on his right elbow in April just before the "Wheelchair World Team Cup" in May. He brought the May 2 press conference for the "Wheelchair World Team Cup" to an uproar when he announced that he had had the surgery. He did not attend the Japan Open, and almost did not attend the "Wheelchair World Team Cup." In the end he did, and as a top player helped Japan place second in that event, which started May 23, although they lost to France in the finals.

Kunieda won bronze in doubles at the Rio Paralympics
photo by X-1

After the "Wheelchair World Team Cup," pain returned to his elbow and he began to tour less. He came to the Rio Paralympics uncharacteristically unprepared, only attending one event in Canada immediately before it. In the singles he was defeated in the quarterfinals, and in doubles managed to snatch the bronze. His joy at attaining a medal was brief, however, and after the Rio Paralympics he did not return to touring.
He took three months off from tennis, not even training during this time, and around February finally started practicing. In order to prevent further injury to his elbow, he began working on changing his form.

"Right now I am looking for a form that does not put stress on my elbow. When I play a game, though, I revert back to my old form, so I admonish myself with each point and tell myself, I am going to do the new swing! I also tend to follow the line of the ball, so I am still not very stable. The quality of my shots has changed quite a bit due to my new form, so things may change as I design new strategies (to optimize the new form)."

The day before the finals, he talked about his opponent Takashi Sanada (world ranking 9th), saying, "Sanada is pretty good, so this might be a tough match. I hope I win. The score will not matter." Nevertheless, at the finals on April 23, Kunieda crushed Sanada 6-1, 6-3. He made a brilliant and victorious return.

After every Paralympic gold he received in Athens, Beijing and London, Kunieda always had "something I want to change." He is sure to conquer the new form he is trying for his elbow, and we expect to see him at the top of the world again.

* World rankings are as of April 17

text&photo by Tomoko Sakai
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