28 Feb 2018

The UNIQLO Interview: Shingo Kunieda

News Article

Photo: Takeo TanumaShingo Kunieda (JPN)

UNIQLO LogoFor the second UNIQLO Interview of 2018 we spoke to Shingo Kunieda of Japan, who won the 41st Grand Slam title of his career at January's Australian Open and who was the first ever tennis player to be named Global Brand Ambassador for UNIQLO. 

At the end of his post-match press conference after winning January’s Australian Open men’s singles final, Shingo Kunieda was asked ‘What’s next?’

“New Shingo is coming,” said Kunieda.

They are four words that potentially have more significance for the 2018 UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour and Kunieda’s rivals than the fact of the Japanese star’s 46 61 76(3) victory over Stephane Houdet in a mesmerising title decider at Melbourne Park.

The 41st Grand Slam title of Kunieda’s career came 11 years on from his first singles title at one of the sport’s four majors, when winning the 2007 Australian Open. And he described his ninth Australian Open crown as the ‘happiest one’, coming after two seasons of injury, subsequent elbow surgery and rehabilitation and then a return to full time competition last year.

“Injury was really tough. I thought a little bit about retirement when I felt pain after surgery in 2016. But after taking the good rest to retain my 100 per cent physical (fitness), things were going in a positive way and it made me focus on the tennis and think how to evolve my tennis. That really gained my confidence again,” says Kunieda, whose latest Grand Slam triumph saw him return to the world’s top three for the first time since May 2016.

Diagnosed with spinal cancer at the age of nine, Kunieda began his journey to becoming the most successful men’s player in wheelchair tennis history close to his family home, taking up the sport aged 11.

“There is the tennis centre called TTC (Tennis Training Centre) where the (Japanese) tennis programme has been based since 1990. My mother found it and it is just 30 minutes driving from home (in Kashiwa City, Chiba Prefecture),” says Kunieda, who recently turned 34.

Kunieda’s development at the TTC was such that he did not play his first senior international tournament until he was 17. But then he made an immediate impact, winning the second draw at the Japan Cup at the beginning of August 2001. Before the month was out he’d won his first main draw title at the Kanagawa Open.

With the experience of his first two ITF tournaments on home soil behind him, Kunieda began 2002 by making his overseas tournament debut in Australia, winning the second draw singles at the Sydney International Open.

A little over four years later Kunieda became world No. 1 men’s singles player for the first time and he’d won three Australian Open Grand Slam singles titles, three Roland Garros singles titles, the first of six US Open singles titles and the first of two Paralympic singles gold medals before being named as the first athlete to become a UNIQLO Global Brand Ambassador in 2009.

“I am really honoured that UNIQLO’s tennis involvement started with me. CEO of UNIQLO, Mr. Yanai once told me that my being number one in the world can reflect their company’s goal, which is to become the number one in the fast fashion industry,” says Kunieda.

In 2011 Kunieda was joined on the roster of UNIQLO Global Brand Ambassadors by Kei Nishikori and Japan’s No. 1 wheelchair tennis player and tennis player have developed a close friendship. During his UNIQLO Interview for the ITF in 2017, Nishikori backed Kunieda to return to the top of the sport following his injury time-out – a prediction that has so far shown to be pretty accurate.

“I don’t get chance to spend too much time with Kei, but he is a very good friend of mine. Last year, we both went through injury and I couldn’t meet him a lot, but I am hoping to see him again at Grand Slams (this season),” Kunieda says.

Both players were present, along with Novak Djokovic, at the 2014 announcement of UNIQLO’s sponsorship agreement with the International Tennis Federation for the ITF’s major wheelchair tennis properties.

“The first time I heard UNIQLO had decided to support the ITF’s wheelchair tennis tour, I was so glad and thought a little bit that I played a role in this association,” recalls Kunieda. “Since then, their support to the tour has been amazing, and for sure it helps the tour toward a very good direction.”

Kunieda also recognises that the standard and quality of wheelchair tennis is continually improving as he continues on a road that he hopes will see him regain the world No. 1 ranking.   

“The way of wheelchair tennis has been improving since 2016. Every player has been trying to improve all aspects of tennis, the way to hit the ball, the way to play the game, the way to handle the chair. Yes, the quality has been rising and I have to keep up or be ahead of it,” he says.

With the standard of wheelchair tennis continually rising, Kunieda also wants to see the sport reach a much wider audience.

“(I would like) to have more people watch our games on site or on TV. At Grand Slams you can watch both the able-bodied and us. Some ATP tournaments have both. I wish more ATP tournaments would have wheelchair tennis.

“And in 10 years from now, I wish wheelchair tennis tournaments can draw a bigger audience and kids can dream of playing in front of the big crowds,” he adds.

Whilst dreaming big for future generations of players, the seven-time ITF World Champion and five-time Paralympic medallist is in no doubt of his own career highlights to date and his own ultimate dream as a player.

“The proudest moment in my career has been winning all three Paralympics golds in Athens (doubles) and Beijing and London (singles). If I won in Tokyo in front of the home crowd, it should be the best moment ever in my life.” Kunieda declares.

Sixteen years on from marking his tournament debut in Australia by winning the second draw at the Sydney International Open, Kunieda opened his 2018 UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour campaign by winning his latest Super Series singles title in Sydney, In two weeks’ time he will bid to make it back-to-back Super Series titles when the Cajun Classic in Baton Rouge, USA, debuts as a Super Series event.

Should he win in Baton Rouge it would be another significant landmark on Kunieda’s journey to trying to reclaim the world No. 1 ranking and another building block on his road to Tokyo 2020, where, of course, he aims to be at his best.

“New Shingo is not back to who I used to be at my best. I have to improve all aspects of tennis and I am still confident that ‘New Shingo’ is coming.”

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