If there were any doubts about how much the Beijing Paralympics would be embraced by the host nation, a 10,000 capacity Centre Court crowd on the first day of competition at the Olympic Green Tennis Centre certainly allayed any fears.
The spectators were certainly not disappointed, with a series of upsets and incredible drama all around the venue throughout the eight days of action, culminating in crowds of around 9,000 cheering enthusiastically for the finals.
Kunieda storms to Paralympic gold
Shingo Kunieda became Japan’s first Paralympic singles champion with a dominant display in Beijing. The world No. 1 dropped only 12 games in his six matches, clinching the title with a 63 60 triumph over No. 2 seed Robin Ammerlaan of the Netherlands.
However, Kunieda and Satoshi Saida were unable to repeat their Athens men’s doubles success, with the pair having to settle for bronze. The title went to second seeds Stephane Houdet and Michael Jeremiasz of France, who overcame Sweden’s Stefan Olsson and Peter Wikstrom 61 76(5).
The men’s singles got off to an intriguing start with Australian No. 12 seed Ben Weekes going out in the first round to Yoshinobu Fujimoto of Japan. Meanwhile, Thailand’s Suthi Kholongrua made light of a ranking deficit of more than 80 places to beat Fabian Mazzei of Italy, and Sri Lanka’s Upalia Rajakaruna became the only one of the players to reach the second round after being awarded wildcards via the 2007 Silver Fund Cup.
Former two-time singles medallist Stephen Welch of the USA joined Fujimoto as the only two non-seeds to reach the last 16, while Fujimoto’s compatriot and ninth seed Saida defeated world No. 5 Tadeusz Kruszelnicki of Poland to reach his third successive Paralympic Games quarterfinal.
Kunieda was the hot favourite for the men’s singles title having arrived in Beijing on an unbeaten run since the start of the year. After needing only 55 minutes to see off Athens gold medallist Ammerlaan in the final and wrap up his 40th successive singles win of the season, he said: “I just thought, ‘Yes, I did it. I cannot usually drink alcohol, but tonight I will.’”
Ammerlaan had led a trio of Dutch men into the semifinals, with Maikel Scheffers and Ronald Vink both upsetting the seedings to reach the last four. Scheffers overcame third seed Jeremiasz in the quarterfinals, the same stage at which 11th seed Vink defeated fourth seed Houdet to become the lowest seeded player to reach the semifinals of any Paralympic Tennis Event to date.
Vink then came from 1-4 down in the third set of his semifinal against Ammerlaan to get within two points of defeating the reigning champion, before going down in a final set tiebreak. He went on to lose the bronze medal play off to Scheffers 63 61.
Austrian duo Martin Legner and Thomas Mossier upset French sixth seeds Lahcen Majdi and Nicolas Peifer 63 64 in the second round of the men’s doubles, ending Majdi’s bid for a second doubles medal in successive Paralympics.
With all four seeded partnerships reaching the semifinals, Kunieda and Saida’s title defence ended in a three set loss to Olsson and Wikstrom. However, the Swedish fourth seeds found Houdet and Jeremiasz too strong in a gold medal match decided over two days as France gained it’s first ever Paralympic tennis gold medal.
Vink was also on the losing side in the doubles bronze medal play-off, where he partnered Scheffers to a 36 60 62 defeat by Kunieda and Saida 36 60 62.
Historic third triumph for Vergeer
“I was 5-3 down? How did I win?”
That was Esther Vergeer’s reaction to a question in her post-match press conference after the women’s singles final echoed the thoughts of many who witnessed one of the most remarkable matches in Paralympic tennis history. However, long before the world No. 1 captured her third successive Paralympic gold medal, the women’s singles had already produced great drama.
The 10,000 crowd of largely Chinese spectators on Centre Court on the opening day had much to cheer as China’s No. 1 Fuli Dong was responsible for the exit of the first of the seeded players as she beat seventh seeded Mie Yaosa of Japan in straight sets.
In the second round American Beth Arnoult and Dong’s compatriot Dan Dan Hu beat sixth seed Annick Sevenans of Belgium and seventh seed Ilanit Fridman of Israel respectively and the host nation had two representatives in the quarterfinals for the first time, much to the delight of the home supporters.
It took none other than Vergeer to end Dong’s Paralympics, but the world No. 1 came within one point of losing her five-year unbeaten record in the final. The 27-year-old Dutch woman eventually overcame her second seeded compatriot Korie Homan 62 46 76(5).
Vergeer and Homan both eased into the singles final, dropping only 18 games between them. Homan then recovered from a set and 4-2 down to lead 5-3 in the final set, only to miss a match point on Vergeer’s serve at 5-4.
Vergeer, a winner in Sydney and Athens, said: “I was this close to losing this match today, the most important match of my year, the whole four years I’ve been working for it. I’m just the happiest person in the world right now.”
Homan added: “I am very happy to win the silver medal, but at the same time a little bit sad because I was one point away from the gold. It was an amazing match, an amazing final.”
Florence Gravellier prevented an all-Dutch semifinal line-up with a quarterfinal victory over third seed Sharon Walraven. The French woman went on to win the bronze medal with a 63 64 defeat of Griffioen.
Having arrived in Beijing yet to win a Paralympic medal, Gravellier also won bronze in the doubles, partnering Arlette Racineux to a 57 63 62 victory over Americans Beth Arnoult and Kaitlyn Verfuerth. Racineux collected her second Paralympic women’s doubles bronze medal, 12 years after winning her first in Atlanta.
There was revenge for 22-year-old Homan in an all-Dutch women’s doubles final when she partnered Sharon Walraven to a shock 26 76(4) 64 over Jiske Griffioen and Vergeer, only the second defeat for the top seeds in 40 events together.
Norfolk repeats Athens victory
Peter Norfolk successfully defended his Paralympic quad title with an impressive overall display in Beijing. The 47-year-old No. 2 seed dropped only 10 games in his four matches, defeating surprise finalist Johan Andersson of Sweden 62 62 to win gold.
Americans Nick Taylor and David Wagner also defended their quad doubles title, the top seeds overcoming unseeded Israelis Boaz Kramer and Shraga Weinberg 60 46 62 in the final.
Norfolk and Wagner had been rivals for the world No. 1 ranking throughout the year, but the top seeded American failed to find his best form in Beijing, losing in the semifinals to fourth seed Andersson 64 26 63, having been visibly disturbed by several line-calls during the match. At the same stage, the Briton overcame third seed Taylor 60 63.
Despite giving away 24 years in the final, Norfolk needed only 61 minutes to retain his title against the 23-year-old, having won the inaugural quad event four years ago.
“The atmosphere out there was the best I’ve ever played in,” he said afterwards. “Johan played well but I think nerves got the better of him which isn’t surprising with a crowd of 10,000 watching. To defend my gold medal I’m ecstatic.”
There was consolation for Wagner when he defeated his compatriot Taylor 62 46 61 in the bronze medal play-off.
Sweden had never won a Paralympic tennis medal prior to Beijing, but Andersson’s victory over Wagner ensured the first of two silver medals for the Scandinavian country.
Meanwhile, Israel was also without a Paralympic medal before Kramer and Weinberg shocked second seeds Norfolk and Jamie Burdekin in straight sets in the quad double semifinals.
Kramer and Weinberg surprised everyone again in the final as they recovered from not winning a game against Wagner and Taylor in the first set to take the Americans to three sets.
While Wagner added a second doubles gold to his singles bronze medal, Norfolk also won a second doubles medal in successive Games when he teamed up with Burdekin to defeat Dutch duo Dorrie Timmermans van Hall and Bas van Erp 67(4) 75 61 to win bronze.
The Beijing Paralympics ended with the overall Paralympic tennis medal having expanded to feature a total of 11 nations. The ever-increasing standards suggest that there is no reason why the spread of medals will not increase even further by the time the London Paralympics come around in 2012.
Men's singles Men's doubles
- Gold: Shingo Kunieda (JPN) - Gold: Michael Jeremiasz / Stephane Houdet (FRA)
- Silver: Robin Ammerlaan (NED) - Silver: Stefan Olsson / Peter Wikstrom (SWE)
- Bronze: Maikel Scheffers (NED) - Bronze: Shingo Kunieda / Satoshi Saida (JPN)
Women's singles Women's doubles
- Gold: Esther Vergeer (NED) - Gold: Korie Homan / Sharon Walraven (NED)
- Silver: Korie Homan (NED) - Silver: Jiske Griffioen / Esther Vergeer (NED)
- Bronze: Florence Gravellier (FRA) - Bronze: Florence Gravellier / Arlette Racineux (FRA)
Quad singles Quad doubles
- Gold: Peter Norfolk (GBR) - Gold: Nicholas Taylor / David Wagner (USA)
- Silver: Johan Andersson (SWE) - Silver: Boaz Kramer / Shraga Weinberg (ISR)
- Bronze: David Wagner (USA) - Bronze: Jamie Burdekin / Peter Norfolk (GBR)