Japanese wheelchair tennis stars Kunieda and Kamiji look for golden homecoming at Paralympic Games

Major title holders and Paralympic medallists, Kunieda Shingo and Kamiji Yui have each been ranked No.1 in the world. They’d like to claim the top spot for Tokyo 2020, as well. 

By Nick McCarvel
Wheelchair Tennis
Picture by 2015 Getty Images

Two of the stars of modern-day wheelchair tennis have the chance to sweep the singles podium for host nation Japan come the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Meet Kunieda Shingo and Kamiji Yui, who between them own 32 major titles in singles and six total Paralympic medals, setting up what could be a golden homecoming in Tokyo during the Paralympic Games, set for 24 August-5 September.

“I still can’t imagine how that will feel,” Kunieda told ITF Tennis about playing at a home Games as part of a video celebrating 100 days to go to the Paralympics. “Although I have played at four Paralympic Games since Athens 2004, this is the first time I will experience it in my home country. I’m really looking forward to it.”

While Kunieda is hunting for a third singles gold – he was triumphant at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, as well – Kamiji is after her first. She was the bronze medallist at Rio 2016.

“At the Tokyo 2020 Games, I will of course aim for a gold medal, but on top of that, I hope to be able to enjoy playing,” she told the Tokyo 2020 website in an interview last year.

She added: “I felt nothing but frustration after the [Rio] Games. I did feel the relief of having earned a medal, but I wasn’t happy. I still feel the same way even today as I look back.”

Wheelchair tennis: A crowded field

The fight for gold at the Paralympic Games in both the men’s and women’s wheelchair tennis divisions will be fierce, meaning gold is far from a given for either Kunieda or Kamiji.

While Kunieda is the current No.1 men’s singles player, Gustavo Fernandez of Argentina, Joachim Gerard of Belgium, Frenchman Stephane Houdet, Sweden’s Stefan Olsson and Team GB’s Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid all feature in the top 10 – and are all Grand Slam champions.

Reid won gold at Rio 2016, defeating doubles partner and good friend Hewett in the final.

“There are many good players, and you can watch their intense matches,” Kunieda said of the men’s division. “I hope people will become fans of those players – and of course, I will be happy if people become my fans [too]. That’s what I’m looking forward to the most.

The women’s competition is nearly as packed, where Kamiji currently ranks as No.2 behind Diede De Groot of the Netherlands. The two have split every major title since 2016 save one, with Kamiji capturing six and De Groot nine.

De Groot edged out Kamiji for the Australian Open 2021 title in February, and they’re joined by Aniek Van Koot, De Groot’s Dutch compatriot, Great Britain’s Jordanne Whiley and Ohtani Momoko – who Kamiji will likely play doubles with – at the top of the women’s game.

“Everything about the Paralympics excites me,” Kamiji told ITF Tennis in 2019. “The tournament will be very fun.”

Tokyo 2020: A platform for wheelchair tennis

With wheelchair tennis players able to compete at the same tournaments as the top stars at each of the sport’s four Grand Slams, it has earned a platform not all para sports enjoy otherwise.

But the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be special still for Kunieda and Kamiji: To showcase their talents to a public that has become familiar with them and their global successes – as well as help grow the sport’s participation numbers.

“This will be a big chance to show what wheelchair tennis is to people who have never heard of it,” Kunieda said. “I hope that happens.”

At any major tennis event, Kunieda and Kamiji are followed by a swarm of Japanese reporters who have helped to elevate their profile even more. The big question they'll be asking as the Paralympics crawl closer: Can the duo achieve gold at home?

We’ll soon find that out.

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