All Phases Of Kunieda’s Game Come Together For 6th French Title

All phases of Kunieda’s game come together for 6th French titleWheelchair tennis champion Shingo Kunieda seems to be hitting his peak simultaneously in the three aspects of his game: his mental approach, technique and physical condition.
The 31-year-old beat Stephane Houdet of France in the men’s final at the French Open on Friday to win his second straight title and sixth overall at Roland Garros. Kunieda faced Houdet in the final for the fourth straight year, but only allowed his rival to take one game, winning 6-1, 6-0.

Paired with Gordon Reid of Britain, Kunieda also won the doubles title, defeating Gustavo Fernandez of Argentina and Nicolas Peifer of France 6-1, 7-6 (7-1) in the final.

It was the second time Kunieda completed a Grand Slam double this year — he also won championships in the singles and doubles at the Australian Open in January.

“In my entire tennis career, I have never felt like the mental approach, my technique and physical strength have ever been at higher levels,” Kunieda said after beating Houdet on Friday.

“It felt so good to win a match in which all the fans were rooting for my opponent,” Kunieda added with a smile.

Born in 1984 in Tokyo, Kunieda developed a spinal cord tumor when he was 9, and was forced to use a wheelchair. Two years later, he joined a club that promotes wheelchair tennis and started playing after encouragement from his tennis-loving mother.

The turning point for him came when he was in high school. He took part in a training camp in Europe and had the chance to watch the world’s No. 1 player at the time. Kunieda got goose bumps while watching him play.

“How fun it would be if I could have a rally with him,” Kunieda thought. Inspired, he worked hard to make the dream a reality.

Overcoming mental wall

The climb to the top was all but easy. He hit a wall when he was ranked No. 10 in the world, and decided to consult a sports psychologist in 2006. The advice he received was to verbalize his desire to be the world’s top player.

Since then, he has been shouting, “I am No. 1,” in front of a mirror every morning. He also wrote down the phrase on his racket and mouthpiece.

Whenever fears of failure clouded his mind during important serves, Kunieda would look at the phrase on his racket and “suddenly that timid part of me disappeared,” he said. This attitude boosted his confidence and helped him win.

He has brought all his strengths together by expanding his training routines, allowing him to capture the U.S. Open in autumn 2006 to become the world’s No.1 at 22. The following year, he became the first wheelchair player to complete a calender Grand Slam. He also won back-to-back singles gold medals in the Paralympic Games in 2008 and 2012.

Kunieda continued to challenge himself. He left his job at a university in 2009, though it promised him a stable income, to become the first Japanese professional wheelchair tennis player.

“I wanted to show children that even a wheelchair tennis player can make a living with a racket if he’s a top player,” Kunieda said on why he chose a path that doesn’t offer financial stability. As the world’s top player, he believes he can help energize the world of wheelchair tennis.

Kunieda had planned to retire after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, but decided not to after Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Games. He wants to put a period on his career in his home country.