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[ODDS and EVENS] Shingo Kunieda Adds to His Growing Legend in the Big Apple

“You’ve won a Grand Slam and a Paralympic gold medal in the space of pretty much one week,” said opponent Alfie Hewett to his respected rival. “You’ve put in some insane work.”

Ed Odeven

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U.S. Open men's wheelchair tennis singles champion Shingo Kunieda lifts the winner's trophy on September 12 in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)

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Shingo Kunieda owns three Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair tennis men’s singles competition, the latest of which he received at the Tokyo Games.

So what did the world No. 1 do for an encore?

Kunieda traveled to New York, of course, and updated his remarkable resume before the calendar flips to autumn. He earned his eighth U.S. Open singles title on Sunday, September 12, defeating second-ranked Alfie Hewett 6-1, 6-4. It was his 25th Grand Slam singles title.

It was also a powerful reminder of Kunieda’s singular focus on the court. He plays to win. 

In the U.S. Open final, the 37-year-old Kunieda showed no visible signs of fatigue in the early going. Perhaps it should be surprising due to the expected physical toll of competing in both singles (which wrapped up on September 4) and doubles (the previous day) at the Paralympics, then traveling to New York a day after tennis events ended in the Japanese capital.

But there was Kunieda, as sharp as ever in his latest showdown with British rival Hewett. 

He made quick work of his opponent in the tone-setting first set. It included smacking 11 winners and producing a 71% success rate on serves.

This powerful display of tennis in the opening set, which lasted just 24 minutes, was a bold reminder of Kunieda’s skills, not the least of which is an awesome ability to smack returns that deliver his sport’s version of knockout punches.

In the second set, Hewett pushed Kunieda until the coronation was complete.

When it was over, Kunieda stated that his play against Hewett was as good as it’s ever been. And remember this: There’ve been a heck of a lot of great performances over the years for Kunieda to instantly analyze in his mind before he assessed how he played in the 2021 U.S. Open final. 

“Today’s performance was my best, including the Paralympics,” Kunieda commented. “Yes, even [though] I was very tired, I could play my best. I’m proud about it.”

He continued: “I’m really happy now. But my first emotion is very tired now. I want [to] take a rest after this and I want [to] taste this happy moment after [going] back to Japan.”

Kunieda Inspires His Rivals

The Reitaku University alumni, who won his first U.S. Open singles title in 2007, commands respect on the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Tour. This is a results-driven business, and consistency and a competitive fire are traits that shine through whenever he shows up to play.

Hewett, 23, can attest to that. In fact, he’s in awe of Kunieda’s sustained excellence.

“You’ve won a Grand Slam and a Paralympic gold medal in the space of pretty much one week,” Hewett said as Kunieda looked on after the match. “You’ve put in some insane work, not just over the last year but I can imagine over the last 10-plus years. … I very much look up to you as an idol, and I try to base my work ethic over what you have done in the sport and what you have achieved.”

What Kunieda has achieved may never be equaled. 

In addition to his aforementioned 25 Grand Slam singles titles, he’s also won 51 career doubles titles, including 21 in majors (an eight-time doubles winner at both the Australian Open and French Open, three-time titlist at Wimbledon and twice at the U.S. Open).

When you win as frequently as Kunieda does, there aren’t a lot of surprises.

Consider: He owns a career record of 658 wins and 100 losses in singles matches, according to the International Tennis Federation.

Changes in the Sport

In a fascinating conversation via a video conference call with tennis great Roger Federer and fellow wheelchair tennis player Gordon Reid in August, Kunieda shared his viewpoints on changes in the sport over the past decade. 

“I think the difference from 10 years ago is that all players have much better serves,” Kunieda said. “Ten years ago, there were more breaks of serve. Today, some wheelchair players can hit serves at 160-170 kph. … In that sense, it’s easier to hold serve than it was in the past.”

What else stands out to Kunieda on changs in the game in recent years?

“Players are more aggressive than before,” he said.

Moving forward, he predicted that “the serves will continue to improve.”

Kunieda, who’s been widely labeled the greatest men’s wheelchair tennis player of all time, believes he’ll need to contend with an even faster pace of play in the future.

“Right now, if you are top players, about 80% of balls are returned in one bounce,” Kunieda observed. “If you wait until it bounces twice, you give your opponent more time, so I think attacking play will get faster and faster.”

And Kunieda will be prepared for the challenge that lies ahead.

Author: Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.