Agonized Absolute Champ Kunieda Finds Answer with Federer’s Advice

“I want the people in Japan to watch the high-level games. With many interesting players in the world, I hope there will be more wheelchair tennis fans,” said Kunieda, when asked about his goal at the Tokyo Paralympics, due to start in several days.

By Akatsuki Uchida

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Kunieda with his good friend, Federer. Before the Tokyo Paralympics, Federer gave advice when Kunieda confessed his problem on the court.

“I want the people in Japan to watch the high-level games. With many interesting players in the world, I hope there will be more wheelchair tennis fans,” said Kunieda, when asked about his goal at the Tokyo Paralympics, due to start in several days.

Aspiring to have many people know about the fascinating sport he devoted his life to. Behind those words must be his full confidence to captivate anyone who watches the games.

Meanwhile, the presence of the “absolute champ” Kunieda also helped to create the fullness and exciting nature of the current wheelchair tennis games, generated by the clashes of playing style reflecting each athlete’s life and character.

Absolute Champ Off Court for Six Months

“New Shingo is coming!”

With a confident smile, Kunieda declared after winning the Australian Open in January 2018.

For Kunieda, 2017 was a year of doubts, trials, and errors. In the previous year, he took part in the Rio Paralympics with the best bet for the title, but lost in the quarter-final with an elbow injury. The pain persisted, and he left the court for six months from late 2017 to early 2018.

In the meantime, for a radical solution to his problems, Kunieda reviewed his form, changed his racket, and aimed to revamp his overall playing style. In April 2017, he left his long-time coach and hired Ryo Iwami, who had experience travelling on tours. Kunieda requested this volley-master coach to develop a super-aggressive tennis style with a lot of net play.

Instead of returning to his former self, Kunieda eliminated self-doubt and moved forward by setting his goal beyond the new horizon. The resulting Australian Open win, which Kunieda claimed the happiest one ever, marked his full recovery.  

The 7-mm Revision for Beating the Rival

Stéphane Houdet, Kunieda’s opponent at the Australian Open final, is his biggest rival he also competed at the Tokyo Paralympics quarterfinals. The two have fought 60 times by then. For Kunieda, it is a history of self-improvement and friendly rivalry that heightened himself and thus elevated the level of the wheelchair tennis world.  

While Kunieda reigned at the top with fast-attack tennis, Houdet takes advantage of his strong arm and his weapon is the heavy spin-shot from a high impact point. The contrasting playing style and philosophy led them to each pursue their ultimate wheelchair for competing.  

The story goes back to 2013. After a fierce struggle at the French Open final, Kunieda lost against Houdet at 5-7, 7-5, 6-7.   

What will it take to grasp the few game-deciding points?

Through deep contemplation, he came up with an answer to raise the height of his seat. To counter Houdet’s high-bouncing spin-shot, Kunieda figured he also needed a higher impact point. But a higher seat may slow down the chair work, which is Kunieda’s competitive edge.

After struggling with intense and delicate dilemma, he settled on the minute modification of raising the seat by 7 mm. 

“7 mm can make quite a difference.”

A year and a half from his defeat at Roland Garros, Kunieda showed a satisfactory smile as he achieved eight winning streaks against Houdet. He had broken new ground, thanks to the worthy opponent Houdet.  

The 50-Year-Old Biggest Rival Also Tweaks Chair “to Beat Shingo”

Houdet has also sought a new chair to counter Kunieda. The major revision is the additional part for kneeling that lets him sit at the edge of the seat. In 2015, Houdet revealed the reason for the alteration, saying, “I’m changing it to beat Shingo. With the new chair, I can hit more powerful shots. It will especially extend my backhand reach.” 

Houdet is now 50. The Frenchman who fended off the wave of young athletes with his inquisitive mind and powerful arm was the one who most tormented Kunieda in the Tokyo Games.

“29-Year-Old New Generation” Defeats Kunieda Just Before the Tokyo Games

If the rivalry between Kunieda and Houdet is like the classic match-up between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, then the 29-year-old Gordon Reid who Kunieda competed in the Tokyo Games semifinals could be referred as the “new-generation veteran.” 

Born in a tennis-playing family, Reid used to be a talented junior player in the U.K., and had already gained a high-level of performance. He is a new-generation player that takes the straight backhand with a spin for granted, a skill Kunieda is said to have brought into wheelchair tennis.

The first match between Kunieda and Reid was in 2012. After five consecutive wins over Reid, Kunieda wins and loses alternately against him from 2013. As mentioned earlier, Kunieda was working to change the height of his seat around this time, and the emergence of Reid must have also influenced the decision.  

With Reid in a slump, Kunieda had overwhelmingly won against him in recent years. But at Wimbledon, just before the Tokyo Games, Kunieda suffers a defeat for the first time in two years. After the match, he commented regrettably that he was too obsessed to avoid errors and was inclined to put a spin on the ball.

Federer’s Advice as Kunieda Reflects on a Defeated Match

After this Wimbledon match, three world-class players came together in a virtual meeting. With the arrangement of Uniqlo, its brand ambassadors Kunieda, Reid, and Federer met online to discuss their sport.

During the talk, Kunieda sought advice from Federer, saying, “I don’t want Gordon to hear this, but recently, he beat me on grass, and I was wondering how I should have played.”

Federer responded, “On grass, offense is important. Of course, offense means taking more risk, and taking into consideration more mistakes. This becomes a mental thing, a mental approach, that you’re actually okay making mistakes. On grass, don’t second guess yourself. You have to go with your first big decision, and then be very strong about it.”

Following the talk event, the wheelchair tennis tour moved on to hard court venues, yet Kunieda says Federer’s words helped cast aside doubts from his mind.

At the Paralympics match against Reid, Kunieda went through with the offensive tennis and won in straight sets. The following week at the U.S. Open, the two competed in the semifinals, and after struggling full sets, Kunieda snatched the victory. Then, at the finals, Kunieda won a sweeping victory against Alfie Hewett, with whom he previously had three consecutive losses. Despite feeling so tired, as he later tells, “I thought I couldn’t move right until I entered the court,” once out there, his competitive mind took over.   

Even for the backhand rally in which Hewett outplayed in the past, Kunieda predominated. When the match was over, it was an overwhelming feat. Kunieda praised himself, saying, “Today’s performance was my best, including Paralympics.”

 “Shingo Still at Top in 10 Years’ Time”

Marco Ciccolella/Shutterstock.com

At the previously mentioned Uniqlo talk event, Reid stated an interesting view of the changes in wheelchair tennis.

“The first international tournament I attended was 15 years ago. It was more passive, players were happy to stay behind the baseline and take the ball in two bounces, and a lot of the times, the point was won just when somebody made a mistake. Now, players are trying to be more aggressive, trying to come forward, take the opponent’s time away.”

Reid also analyzed the reason for Kunieda’s strength, saying, “Shingo was one of the best players in the world when I started, and he still is. I think that’s because you’ve adapted your games to the way the sport progressed. So may be in 10 years’ time, we’ll still see Shingo battling away at the top of the game.”

At his rival’s analysis full of respect, Kunieda showed a sheepish grin.

Overcoming Adversity to Regain the “Absolute Champ Title”

Before the Paralympics, Kunieda had lost in the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon, all against British players, and had no major titles this season.

“If I continue like this, it will be difficult to win the gold medal in Tokyo.”

After his defeat in Wimbledon, he gave an unusually pessimistic comment.  

Amid this adversity, he believed in the tennis he honed and built over the years, persisted with the super-offensive tennis, pushing forward to the net more than ever, and regained the undisputed title of absolute champ.

At the Tokyo Paralympics, when he won the first gold medal since the 2012 London Games, Kunieda covered his face with the Japanese flag wrapped around him, his shoulders quivering. His tears proved he had surpassed the level of wheelchair tennis that Kunieda himself elevated with discipline and continuous effort.

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