Eternal
Champion,
Forever Young

Interview with Shingo Kunieda

  • Photography by Keisuke Fukamizu
  • Interview & Text by Kosuke Ide Styling by UNIQLO
  • Hair & Makeup by Mitsugu Takahashi
  • Special thanks to Yoshida Memorial Tennis Training Center

A four-time Paralympic gold medalist,
Shingo Kunieda is not only the strongest wheelchair tennis player in the world,
he also enjoys tennis more than anybody else.
What keeps him going, year after year?

A four-time Paralympic gold medalist,
Shingo Kunieda is not only the strongest wheelchair tennis player in the world,
he also enjoys tennis more than anybody else.
What keeps him going, year after year?

Shingo Kunieda

Wheelchair Tennis Player

Born in 1984 in Tokyo, Kunieda was raised in Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture. Discovering wheelchair tennis at eleven, he became the first player in the history of wheelchair tennis to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2007 and has tallied five such victories to date. At the Athens Paralympics in 2004, he took his first gold in men’s doubles, while at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008, he took another gold in singles and a bronze in doubles. At the London games in 2012, he retained the singles title with yet another gold. And at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, he reclaimed that title, for his fourth gold overall.

“The best.”
Every sport has a cream of the crop, the players who stand above the rest, but an even smaller group among them represent the “top of the top.” In the world of wheelchair tennis, nobody would contest describing athlete Shingo Kunieda the “strongest in the world.” Including his recent victory in 2021 at the Tokyo Paralympics, he has taken four gold medals to date (three in singles, one in doubles). Kunieda holds a whopping forty-six titles from Grand Slam tournaments* (twenty-five singles, twenty-one doubles), the most of any wheelchair tennis athlete in history. Since becoming the first player in the history of wheelchair tennis to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2007, he has done so five times to date. In a career nothing less than stunning, Kunieda has consistently distinguished himself from any and all rivals. On top of winning tournaments for over fifteen years, he has expanded the possibilities of the sport of wheelchair tennis. By revolutionising how the game is played, one might say he claims a place “beyond the best.”

Since becoming the first player in the history of wheelchair tennis to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2007, he has done so five times to date. In a career nothing less than stunning, Kunieda has consistently distinguished himself from any and all rivals. On top of winning tournaments for over fifteen years, he has expanded the possibilities of the sport of wheelchair tennis. By revolutionizing how the game is played, one might say he claims a place “beyond the best.”

*Grand Slam

Refers collectively to all four “majors,” or the most important wheelchair tennis tournaments (today, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open). Until 2008, the four major tournaments for wheelchair tennis were the Australian Open, Japan Open, British Open, and USTA National Wheelchair Championships. Between 2009 and 2016, those who won the Australian Open, French Open, and US Open were described as having achieved a “calendar-year Grand Slam.”

“The best.”
Every sport has a cream of the crop, the players who stand above the rest, but an even smaller group among them represent the “top of the top.” In the world of wheelchair tennis, nobody would contest describing athlete Shingo Kunieda the “strongest in the world.” Including his recent victory in 2021 at the Tokyo Paralympics, he has taken four gold medals to date (three in singles, one in doubles). Kunieda holds a whopping forty-six titles from Grand Slam tournaments* (twenty-five singles, twenty-one doubles), the most of any wheelchair tennis athlete in history. Since becoming the first player in the history of wheelchair tennis to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2007, he has done so five times to date. In a career nothing less than stunning, Kunieda has consistently distinguished himself from any and all rivals. On top of winning tournaments for over fifteen years, he has expanded the possibilities of the sport of wheelchair tennis. By revolutionising how the game is played, one might say he claims a place “beyond the best.”

Since becoming the first player in the history of wheelchair tennis to achieve a calendar-year Grand Slam in 2007, he has done so five times to date. In a career nothing less than stunning, Kunieda has consistently distinguished himself from any and all rivals. On top of winning tournaments for over fifteen years, he has expanded the possibilities of the sport of wheelchair tennis. By revolutionizing how the game is played, one might say he claims a place “beyond the best.”

Originating in the 1970s, wheelchair tennis uses essentially the same court, net height, balls and rackets as typical tennis, as well as the same rules, with the exception that the second bounce can fall outside the court. Those who first encounter footage of a match are frequently startled by its speed and intensity. Though unable to move sideways, players utilise rapid, sweeping chair work as they serve and volley. Backhand shots with ferocious topspin are fired down the sidelines. The formidable techniques that have made wheelchair tennis the resounding spectacle it is today were honed over long hours by Kunieda, with his own hands. Kei Nishikori, who speaks admiringly of Kunieda as “the greatest older brother I could ask for,” recalls that the first time he saw Kunieda’s backhand, he was “shocked by its speed.”

Thanks to the incessant and enthusiastic efforts of Kunieda and other top athletes, the techniques, strategies, and equipment used for wheelchair tennis have been refined from every angle, heightening the competitiveness of the sport to a level far above its humble beginnings. And while the world has recognised the sport as a “new kind of tennis,” it’s only getting started. Gordon Reid, one of Kunieda’s younger rivals, speaks of him and tennis legend Roger Federer in the same breath, proclaiming that “no matter how much this sport changes, he’ll be one of the top players in the world. By furthering the sport, he and Federer have changed the way I play the game.”

Photo from his early days with wheelchair tennis. Kunieda has always loved to move around. Before using a wheelchair, he played baseball, and even afterwards he enjoyed playing basketball with non-disabled friends.

Appearing courtside with his usual warm smile at the Tennis Training Center (TTC) in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, Kunieda was asked to comment yet again on how it felt to take home the gold at the Paralympic Games. “I guess this is about as thrilled as I’ll ever be,” he laughed, sounding a little bittersweet. “Out of all the wins in my career, this one makes me the happiest and gives me the most satisfaction. But that’s all the more reason to set my sights on a new target and keep going,” he said, eyes on the horizon.

When Kunieda was nine years old, a tumor on his spine forced him to adjust to navigating life from a wheelchair. Two years later, at the encouragement of his mother who played tennis, he made his very first visit to TTC and observed a wheelchair tennis practice.

“Initially I had thought playing tennis in a wheelchair would be nothing special, but when I saw it with my own eyes, the sport was fast and powerful. I was amazed. About one year into practising, I competed in my first tournament. That’s when I was hooked. I wanted to win. I had never been content to be the second best, so I guess I was drawn to the thrill of the fight.”

Bouncing back from injury at the 2018 Australian Open, he won the title in men’s wheelchair singles for the first time in almost three years. In the finals against one of his rivals, Stéphane Houdet, he came from behind for a miraculous victory.

Appearing courtside with his usual warm smile at the Tennis Training Center (TTC) in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, Kunieda was asked to comment yet again on how it felt to take home the gold at the Paralympic Games. “I guess this is about as thrilled as I’ll ever be,” he laughed, sounding a little bittersweet. “Out of all the wins in my career, this one makes me the happiest and gives me the most satisfaction. But that’s all the more reason to set my sights on a new target and keep going,” he said, eyes on the horizon.

When Kunieda was nine years old, a tumor on his spine forced him to adjust to navigating life from a wheelchair. Two years later, at the encouragement of his mother who played tennis, he made his very first visit to TTC and observed a wheelchair tennis practice.

“Initially I had thought playing tennis in a wheelchair would be nothing special, but when I saw it with my own eyes, the sport was fast and powerful. I was amazed. About one year into practising, I competed in my first tournament. That’s when I was hooked. I wanted to win. I had never been content to be the second best, so I guess I was drawn to the thrill of the fight.”

In high school he distinguished himself on the national scale and even made trips overseas. Under the guidance of Coach Hiromichi Maruyama, whom he met in his third year, he heightened his game even further. Kunieda then began competing on the world stage, taking home a gold in doubles at the 2004 Athens Paralympics (paired with Satoshi Saida) and became world number-one in 2006, the first time an Asian man has held this rank. In 2009 he went pro, signing on with UNIQLO as the brand’s first Global Brand Ambassador. His brilliant career, as stated above, has taken him beyond the top, but this is not to say that everything has been smooth sailing. In 2015, a year after his fifth calendar-year Grand Slam positioned him at the peak of the sport, he went to Rio for the 2016 Paralympics. Though expected to reign supreme for the third time in a row, he was defeated in the quarterfinals. Chronic pains in his overused right arm finally caught up with him. “I was so discouraged that I honestly thought of retiring.”

But in retrospect, his rebound from rock bottom was the start of a remarkable comeback, the stuff of legend. At the 2018 Australian Open, he won the title after a gap of two years and four months. What moved him to tears was how he had revised his signature swing, modifying his backhand to reduce the outsize burden on his right arm. Changing his grip, with lots of trial and error, he spent a year recovering.

“If you change the way you’ve always done things, you run the risk of getting yourself hurt. But unless you take the risk and try, you’ll never grow. In my career, I’ve taken a lot of wrong turns that hurt my body. But these experiences are valuable, because they teach us what not to do.”

It’s not just about the value of mistakes. “Losing gives you so much more than winning,” says Kunieda. “It tells you what you need to do to get to the next step.” But in the same vein, what matters most is what you do “after the win,” he says.

In September 2021, just after the Paralympics in Tokyo, Kunieda defeated British athlete Alfie Hewett in wheelchair men’s singles at the US Open, defending his title.

“This goes without saying if you lose, but winning also means you have to change. The other players are getting better all the time. Rest on your laurels, and you’ll fall behind. If you want to stay on top, change is imperative. This means constantly evaluating what you need. Working from within, to find the path toward growth. I struggle with the difficulty of this every day.”

This “difficulty of winning” places a demand not only on technique, but on mentality.

“Every match has its own pressures. Even in the first round, there’s the massive fear of knowing that you absolutely cannot lose. Some players are so crushed by fear they lose command of their abilities. But I’m of the belief that pressure and anxiety are not necessarily a bad thing. It’s when you’re nervous that your senses are the most acute, keeping you sharp, whereas if there’s no stress, it’s easy to get sloppy.”

Many have heard about the strip of tape on Kunieda’s racket that says, “I’m the best.” These words of personal encouragement have given him the boost he needed countless times.

“Up against mental pressure, I advocate giving yourself a pep talk. Before the match, I’ll stop in front of the mirror and say the words ‘I know what I gotta do. I can do this’ and repeat them while I play. When you’re playing for two hours, it’s natural to lose steam, but it’s how you use the twenty-five seconds between points to prepare yourself, both physically and mentally, that ends up deciding the match.”

Kunieda’s daily practice regimen consists of about three hours of tennis and another hour or so of stretching and other exercises. “Wearing UNIQLO keeps me feeling crisp and dry, even when I sweat. It’s great. That’s why I wear it all year round.”

"His ability to believe “I can do this” from the bottom of his heart stems from the confidence amassed by pushing himself to the limit every practice. “It’s about taking one ball at a time, not swinging at the duds, and living each day to the fullest, one after the next. Skill doesn’t happen overnight,” says Kunieda matter-of-factly, while Tasuku Iwami, who has worked beside him as his personal coach for four years now, says that Kunieda is “absolutely a perfectionist. He’ll do the same thing over and again until he gets it right. He never stops thinking about tennis, even when he’s sleeping. You can bet the best is yet to come.”
Kunieda’s bottomless capacity to endure hardship and strife may make him come across as almost superhuman, but he sees it differently."

“There’ve been lots of times I told myself ‘That’s it, I’m done,’” he says. “Still, though...after a loss, maybe showering at the hotel, I might tell myself ‘It’s over,’ but after a night’s rest, I’ll make the trip back to Japan, and by the time I’m at my house, I’m thinking ‘Man, I’d love to play some tennis.’ I’ve finally made it to the point where I’ll accept a loss. I used to tell myself ‘Don’t lose, no matter what.’ But the experience of going from a champion to a contender took a huge weight off my shoulders and taught me to ask myself ‘Okay, what next?’ It’s changed the way I practice. I enjoy seeing myself transform. A few months later, facing off against the player who beat me, I know I’ll be a whole new version of myself. Getting there’s no easy feat. But seeing things this way makes practice really fun. It gives me a new source of encouragement. Just recently, during the US open in 2021, I thought up a new technique. I felt the space for growth, a confidence that I could grow. The best moments for me are when I’m thinking ‘Wow, if I can make this happen, just think of how it will improve my game.’”

While pushing himself to the limits and reaching the highest heights, Kunieda has given himself over to the joys that can only be found beyond the competition. “I’ve realizsd all over again just how much I love tennis,” laughs Kunieda boyishly, moving one step further past “the best.”

“At UNIQLO LifeWear Day Tokyo, I was so happy to team up with my absolute idol, Roger Federer. It was like a dream. Federer’s influence on the sport is how I wound up loving tennis as much as I do. What’s next for me? Taking Wimbledon. It’s the mecca of tennis. Someday soon, I want to give the wheelchair tennis fans I’ve made an awesome show, in person. A game that really knocks them off their seats.”

In 2019, Kunieda and Roger Federer teamed up for a doubles match for charity at UNIQLO LifeWear Day Tokyo, held at Ariake Tennis Park. Federer, one of Kunieda’s role models, had this to say about his doubles partner: “I can’t have more respect for you. Everything that you’ve done in tennis has been wonderful.”

In September 2021, just after the Paralympics in Tokyo, Kunieda defeated British athlete Alfie Hewett in wheelchair men’s singles at the US Open, defending his title.

Kunieda’s daily practice regimen consists of about three hours of tennis and another hour or so of stretching and other exercises. “Wearing UNIQLO keeps me feeling crisp and dry, even when I sweat. It’s great. That’s why I wear it all year round.”

In 2019, Kunieda and Roger Federer teamed up for a doubles match for charity at UNIQLO LifeWear Day Tokyo, held at Ariake Tennis Park. Federer, one of Kunieda’s role models, had this to say about his doubles partner: “I can’t have more respect for you. Everything that you’ve done in tennis has been wonderful.”

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