Photo: Tommy HindleyShingo Kunieda (JPN) at the draw ceremony
LONDON, GREAT BRITAIN: Shingo Kunieda spent the first half of the year sidelined with an elbow injury, but now the Japanese star of wheelchair tennis is fit and ready to defend the Paralympic men’s singles gold medal he sensationally won four years ago.
Kunieda dropped 12 games on his way to victory in Beijing, a measly average of just two games per match, and the 28-year-old looks like he’s peaking at the right time for his London 2012 campaign too. However, the grass wasn’t looking quite so green six months ago.
After last season’s US Open in September, Kunieda was ruled out for eight months with an elbow problem that required surgery in February. During this time, he surrendered his four-year reign as the world No. 1 to Frenchman Stephane Houdet, who remains in the top spot today.
Kunieda’s long road back to fitness started at the Japan Open, his home tournament, in May. He lost in the semifinals to Houdet, but the green shoots of recovery were already on display.
“From April I started to hit a sponge ball, then 30% pressure ball, then 50% pressure ball, then by the middle of April I could hit a normal ball,” said Kunieda, describing how he returned from his elbow operation.
“I practiced for two weeks with a normal ball and then played the Japan Open. I lost in the semifinals to Stephane, but I wasn’t disappointed because I was (happy to be) back playing. I knew I needed more time and more matches. I calculated that I needed three months of playing for my tennis to get better. Now those three months are up.”
Kunieda renewed the rivalry with Houdet in his next two tournaments, the World Team Cup and Roland Garros, and the result was the same both times, but on each occasion the Japanese player was getting closer.
The breakthrough soon came at the French Open as Kunieda turned the tables on Houdet with a three-set win in the semifinals before defeating Stefan Olsson of Sweden to lift the trophy. He backed this up with further titles at the Swiss Open and British Open, concluding the perfect preparation for London 2012.
“I’m excited and ready for the tournament,” said Kunieda. “The Paralympics is always special. It’s very different from a normal tournament – there’s more pressure and it’s only once every four years. There are many young players now coming up and they’re dangerous, but I feel if I play my tennis then I can get a gold medal.”
Kunieda, the No. 2 seed, starts his London 2012 campaign on Saturday against Brazil’s Rafael Medeiros, which will be a first meeting for the two players. Looking further ahead, he’s in the same quarter of the draw Frenchman Michael Jeremiasz and Dutchman Robin Ammerlaan, the Beijing silver medallist, and the same half as another dangerous Dutchman, Ronald Vink. Houdet, the No. 1 seed, has his own challenges in the top half, but the possibility of another Kunieda-Houdet showdown is a mouth-watering prospect.
Kunieda has also enjoyed Paralympic success on the doubles court, a record he’s hoping to improve this time. Partnering Satoshi Saida, he won gold on his Olympic debut in Athens and followed up with bronze in Beijing. The Japanese pair are teaming up for a third time in London and open their account against Argentine duo Gustavo Fernandez and Agustin Ledesma.