Shingo Kunieda – taking the sport to the next dimension
"He's THE wheelchair tennis personality", said his great French rival Stephane Houdet. For sure, Shingo Kunieda is the world’s biggest name in wheelchair tennis. The man from Japan is forcing his opponents to raise their game and thus taking the sport to a new dimension.
Last year on the clay of Roland-Garros, he swept all before him. As he had done many, many times before. En route to what was to be his sixth French Open crown to date (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014 and 2015), Shingo Kunieda dropped the grand total of three games. A measly one of those came in the final against Frenchman Stéphane Houdet, who has since gone on to be world No.1. At the time, he was second to his great Japanese rival in the rankings, as well as being a good friend off-court and even an occasional doubles partner. In June 2015 however, the Tokyo righty was on another level, lifting the trophy yet again and making his a career that will be virtually impossible for anyone to emulate. Kunieda is not like the rest of the players on the circuit. "He is THE wheelchair tennis personality. He’s our Grand Slam winner – simple as!" enthuses Houdet.
Not that anyone would have thought that this young lad, who grew up a big fan one of Japan’s most popular sports, namely baseball, only to be stopped in his tracks by a bone marrow tumour which left him paraplegic from the age of nine, would become one of the greatest champions his sport had ever known some 20 years later. 20 Grand Slam singles titles, 19 more in the doubles, three Masters, three gold medals at the Paralympics… World No.1, with two incredible win-streaks to his name – 106 in a row between 2007 – 2010, 77 more between the start of 2014 and the end of 2015. No-one would have thought him capable of such feats… except perhaps Kunieda himself when he opened the gates of a tennis academy at the age of 11 and with them, a whole new world of possibilities.
"As a child he loved sport, and his mother thought that it would be good for him", explains Japanese journalist and Smash magazine contributor Akatsuki Uchida-Kobayashi."His parents were looking for a sport that he could play in a wheelchair. First they thought of basketball, but there weren’t any clubs nearby where he could play. Then his father found a big tennis academy close to home which not only had the right facilities, but also a dedicated coach who could help him learn how to play wheelchair tennis." For Kunieda, it was love at first forehand.
"As an engineer for an IT company, he had a very steady job with a good salary, but then he decided to turn pro"
So much so that within a few years, he had taken the decision to devote his life to his new all-consuming passion. "He went to university and graduated," Kobayahi continues, "then started working as an engineer for an IT company. He had a very steady job with a good salary, but then he decided to turn pro. His father was against the idea, because he knew how difficult it would be for him to make a living! But his mother encouraged him, even if it was a tough decision. He was so involved in tennis and so in love with the sport that for him, it was quite simply unthinkable that he should abandon his passion and miss out on a career as a professional."
It turned out to be the right decision, and one that lead on a path to success, as well as enabling wheelchair tennis to move to the next level, and beyond. "Shingo has raised the standards on-court and off," says Mark Bullock, head of wheelchair tennis at the International Tennis Federation (ITF). "On-court, his levels of play, his speed and his physique have helped the sport to progress. Off-court, his commitment and his professionalism have set very high standards."
Kunieda was the first to travel with his own coach and fitness trainer, bringing a very professional aspect to the wheelchair tennis circuit, right down to his highly methodical practice sessions. "When we hit together at a Grand Slam abroad, in Australia for example, I go on court with a hitting partner that I find out there," smiles Houdet. "He’s there with his coach and his physio. He has an entourage befitting his status!"
The status in question is one of a man who is every inch the champion. "He has set the bar very high and made the other players want to follow his example," Bullock continues. "He has an incredible work ethic, and his implication and devotion to his chosen sport are extraordinary." Kunieda is also a popular figure among his peers. "He’s a really nice guy, a very open talker and very funny," says Kobayashi. "To know him is to love him!" she smiles, detailing one of the many reasons why, along with his on-court success, he has become a star in Japan.
Sponsorship and television
Kunieda became the first sportsman to sign a sponsorship contract with a particular world-famous Japanese brand of clothing – indeed the same one which, a few years later, would continue its expansion into the world of tennis by recruiting Kei Nishikori and then Novak Djokovic. "Shingo was a pioneer" Kobayashi continues, "and without him, I don’t know whether this brand would have sponsored Kei. When Shingo turned professional and he got a contract with this apparel supplier, it was big news." And for more than one reason… "The other factor is that we Japanese love the Olympic Games and the Paralympics, and Shingo won three gold medals. And who could fail to appreciate a wonderful story like his?"
"Shingo is certainly a star," adds Bullock. "I was in Japan recently and I could see that he was well-known there. He had all sorts of requests for interviews or to go on TV shows." "As well as being a really nice guy," says French No.1 Houdet, "he’s a player with an incredible media presence – he’s really big in Japan. A TV channel even purchased the broadcast rights for all the wheelchair Grand Slam tournaments last year, which means that ever since Roland-Garros 2015, all our matches are shown! I think that it’s helped all wheelchair tennis to move up a level and that’s something that’s really, really interesting. It opens up wonderful perspectives for the next generation and the one that comes after."
At the end of the day, Kunieda is working hard not only for himself and his own personal records. "He sees himself as being responsible for representing wheelchair tennis as a whole," explains Kobayashi. "He knows what people are expecting of him, and he really tries to be a role model." And in the latter respect, he is already succeeding. The competition is getting fiercer – due in no small part to Kunieda’s extremely high standards. "He is a model for us," agrees Nicolas Peifer, a member of the new generation coming up behind Kunieda and Houdet, which also features Belgium’s Joachim Gerard, Gordon Reid of the UK and Argentina’s Gustavo Fernandez. "He is the example we all try to copy. He has set demanding new levels to achieve if we are going to go on and win the big tournaments."
A model for the competition, as well as for Japanese youngsters who are being encouraged to follow the path that their idol has laid for them. "We now have a few decent players aged around 20 or so," says Kobayashi, "and then there is Yui Kamiji who is currently No.2 in the women’s rankings and was first in the world at one point." Indeed, Kamiji won Roland-Garros in 2014 and described Kunieda as an "example" and a "mentor". She and many others like her…