'I am the strongest': KUNIEDA Shingo underlines GOAT credentials with third Paralympic singles gold

In a watershed moment for the host country, the greatest ever in men's wheelchair tennis lets it all out at Ariake Tennis Park under the gaze of all of Japan

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Taped to KUNIEDA Shingo's racquet are the words "I am the strongest", as a simple reminder to himself of the player he is when the going ever gets tough for him in a match.

After Saturday (4 September) however, one has to wonder if Kunieda will need any more reminding in the future.

The rest of the world certainly won't. Following his sweeping straight sets victory over the Netherlands' Tom Egberink in the Tokyo 2020 wheelchair tennis men's singles final, Kunieda became the first man to win three Paralympic gold medals in the event.

He is now tied with Australia's David Hall for most medals won by a male Paralympic tennis player, at six.

Kunieda's trophy case is completely stocked. For his career, the 37-year-old Japanese has a combined 45 singles and doubles Grand Slam titles. The only piece of silverware missing is a singles trophy from Wimbledon.

Can you spell GOAT?

"This really is a moment I will never forget for the rest of my life", Kunieda said exclusively to Olympics.com after delivering one of the signature moments for the host country at these Games.

I can’t believe I’m slinging this gold medal around my neck, especially after I considered retiring at one point.

I’m just glad I’m healthy and still competing.

"I honestly can’t believe it. My wife, my trainer, my coach. I was able to get this far because of them. I feel nothing but gratitude".

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Rising phoenix

After Saturday's final Kunieda broke down like never before, in all kinds of emotions.

After failing to defend the singles' title at Rio 2016, crashing out in the quarter-finals, Kunieda contemplated retirement because his elbow was bothering him so badly.

It took him all of 2017 to reinvent not only his game but also his mindset and approach to the sport he took up as a sixth grader.

Kunieda was wholly invested in Tokyo 2020 like he never had before for a Paralympic Games.

He was named captain of the Japanese delegation and took the athletes' oath at the Opening Ceremony. He trained like no other for his home Games and throughout the tournament, repeatedly said he couldn't tire.

His rivals tipped their hats to Kunieda, hands down. Bronze medallist Gordon Reid, who faced him in the semi-final, said sometimes you just have to appreciate greatness.

"I was moving really well out there, able to chase down everything during the entire competition", Kunieda said.

"I couldn’t have been in better shape for a final. For most competitions, I’m spent going into a final but I felt so alive out there. Really felt like I had home advantage.

"I was able to better my performance with each match and the last stroke of the match was my backstroke which is something I worked so hard on. It felt great.

This is so special.

I was knocked off the throne in Rio so to come back from that, at the Tokyo Paralympics of all places, is unreal and feels incredible.

Paris 2024?

The morning after, the feat still hadn't sunken in for Kunieda.

He said he will keep going towards Paris in three years' time, but as for the U.S. Open starting on Thursday where all eyes will be on the reigning Paralympic champion?

"I’m leaving (for the U.S. Open tomorrow). I kind of don’t want to go now (laughs). I’ll suck it up though", he said.

But for now, more than the U.S. Open or Paris 2024, there are more pressing things on Kunieda's mind.

"I want some ramen", he said at a press conference Sunday. "And I haven't been gaming in a while so I want to find time for that if I can.

"I felt the support of so many people through the television set here and fed off that, big time.

"The best thing about this is so many people had an opportunity to see me play this time, which has been the best thing about this journey".