Wheelchair Tennis Legend Conveyed Appeal of Parasports

A wheelchair tennis legend has put a period on his playing career. His achievements in raising awareness of parasports are immeasurable. His results must be applauded, and his efforts must be appreciated.

Shingo Kunieda, having announced his retirement, held a press conference at which he reflected on his career, saying: “I gave it my all. I’ve had a great tennis life.”

Kunieda earned four gold medals at the Paralympics and achieved a career Golden Slam by also winning all four major titles.

The government plans to present him with the People’s Honor Award in recognition of his long career as a leading figure in parasports. He will be the first para-athlete to achieve this distinction. Considering his unprecedented success, everyone would agree the honor is well-earned.

At the age of 9, Kunieda began using a wheelchair due to the effects of a spinal cord tumor. He started playing wheelchair tennis at the age of 11. When he was in high school, he was shocked to see a foreign player break his racket in show of chagrin at being defeated. He realized, “This isn’t rehabilitation, it’s a sport.”

With his natural athletic ability and competitive spirit, he quickly improved, and tennis became a way of life for him. He has won more than 50 titles in singles and doubles at the four major tennis tournaments.

On the court, Kunieda repeatedly told himself, “I’m the best!” to motivate himself. He was an athlete who aimed high, believing in the power of words.

At the decisive moment when he earned a gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics, he covered his face with his hands and cried, saying, “I feel like I’m in a dream.” Perhaps, Kunieda felt a sense of relief at having fulfilled his responsibility as the captain of Team Japan.

His likely successor has also emerged. In the singles final of last year’s Rakuten Japan Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships, 16-year-old Tokito Oda came close to beating Kunieda. “I think the wheelchair tennis world will revolve around him from now on,” Kunieda said.

In 2009, Kunieda turned pro because, he said, he wanted to improve the overall status of sports for the disabled. By continuing to win, he has been able to popularize and develop parasports.

Now, the younger generation will carry on his passion.

At the press conference, Kunieda did not disclose his postretirement plans, but said, “I still have energy to return the favor to tennis.” It is hoped that he will continue to pour his efforts into further developing the sport and fostering future generations of athletes.

Kunieda retired from his playing career while still ranked No. 1 in the world. When he announced his retirement, Kunieda wrote in a social media post: “You may say I’m trying to be too cool [by going out on top]; please forgive me (lol).”

Mr. Kunieda, you are too cool.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 8, 2023)