FUNAMIZU Shiori: Breaking stereotypes through para sports

FUNAMIZU Shiori who reached the top of the junior world ranking is now going to make her Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020
FUNAMIZU Shiori who reached the top of the junior world ranking is now going to make her Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020

Japanese wheelchair tennis player intends to follow her idols KUNIEDA Shingo and KAMIJI Yui's path, whilst making her own mark at a home Paralympic Games in 2021.

Two years after starting wheelchair tennis, FUNAMIZU Shiori rose to the top of the junior world ranking.

Now, the Japanese player is aiming for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, where she hopes to be on the same court as the players she admires most.

Sport led to acceptance

“I’ve tried many different Para sports, and wheelchair tennis is the hardest one. You need to manoeuvre the wheelchair, go to the ball while holding the racket, adjust the distance, hold the racket again, hit the ball, then move again. You have so many things to do. It’s challenging, but that’s what makes this sport fun," she said.

Funamizu suffered a spinal cord injury during a holiday when she was in junior high school. She stayed in hospital after the accident, being unable to accept the reality of her impairment and being in a wheelchair. But one day, while she was still in the hospital, her parents decided to take her to the All Japan Wheelchair Tennis Masters, where she saw KUNIEDA Shingo.

“I kept thinking negatively, not wanting to leave the hospital, not wanting to go home. But watching the games, I was astonished to see how much we could do with a wheelchair, like turning and maneuvering the wheelchair with speed, hitting the ball, moving and turning, and hitting the ball again," Funamizu said.

"I became interested in this sport also because wheelchair tennis follows the same rules as tennis in general, except that players are allowed two bounces of the ball.”

Six months later, while still adjusting to life in a wheelchair, she decided to try wheelchair tennis and sat in a sports chair for the first time.

“The chair moved by itself as I took my hands off it. I was like, ‘What the heck is this?’ It was scary, and I’d never experienced that kind of feeling before.”

Unlike the normal wheelchair she usually used, it didn’t go straight even if she pushed it with both hands and there were no brakes either.

It took a long time for her to adjust not just on the wheelchair but to the sport. With her play being far from Kunieda’s in the game she had seen, Funamizu didn’t think she would ever become a competitive player back then.

At first Funamizu was scared of a sports chair but over time it became a challenge she loved
At first Funamizu was scared of a sports chair but over time it became a challenge she loved
Provided by Funamizu Shiori

From softball to qualifying for Japan in wheelchair tennis

In the beginning, Funamizu had devoted herself to softball while in junior high school, only practising wheelchair tennis twice a month as part of her rehabilitation. But thanks to her training in softball, the young athlete performed well with big serves at junior competitions, drawing the attention of the national head coach. After being selected to represent Japan for junior competitions, Funamizu decided to attend the same senior high school as Kunieda so that she could keep playing wheelchair tennis.

It was during the 2016 World Team Cup held in Japan that Funamizu made her debut representing her country. But with little experience in competitive games, she was shocked and amazed to see the level of performance of the international players.

“While I had relied on serves to win, they were better at everything, including returning, which shocked me. I found that some of the players were younger than me, and that got me thinking, ‘How much better can I get if I practise as hard as they do?’”

Funamizu quickly rose to the top of the junior world ranking after taking up wheelchair tennis
Funamizu quickly rose to the top of the junior world ranking after taking up wheelchair tennis
Provided by Funamizu Shiori

Moving from defense to offense

Funamizu is known as a defensive player, someone who rallies the ball and waits for the right moment. While that style was effective within Japan, at the 2017 Wheelchair Tennis Open in Sydney it wasn't a winning formula.

“I couldn’t reach for the ball so many times even when I moved all the way to the back of the court and stretched my arm. I was shocked by their spins, and their ball was much more powerful than mine. I wondered how Japanese players overcame these challenges.”

How could she win against international players?

Funamizu had a new goal: to become a player like KAMIJI Yui, also a left-handed female player.

Despite her small stature, being 143cm tall, Kamiji had competed well in international games and won bronze at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Currently ranked second in the world, Kamiji also qualifies for the Tokyo 2020 Games this 2021.

“She can beat powerful foreign players by skilfully controlling the ball. In particular, the precision of her ball is amazing. The ball goes to exactly where she intends it to. Admiration and respect are not enough to describe how I feel about her. I’ve only achieved around 30 out of 100.”

Because many tennis matches were cancelled due to COVID-19, Funamizu, who is currently 20th in the world, needs to achieve results in a short period of time to move up in the rankings. At the moment, she is working on mental training and transforming her playing style from defensive to a more aggressive one.

“Rather than waiting for my opponent’s mistakes, I need to go and get points myself.”

The pandemic therefore gave her more reasons to clearly show an offensive style in order to win. In addition, she focussed on strength training which has also enabled her to acquire an unbeatable weapon: the tactical use of low backhand slices down the line and cross court.

Changing perceptions

This Spring, Funamizu started her junior year at the University of Tsukuba specialising in sports marketing, researching how to bring more people to Para sports games.

“The only difference between wheelchair tennis and tennis is that the former allows two bounces of the ball. That’s all. We use the same court and the same racket, that makes wheelchair tennis one of the Para Sports everyone can easily enjoy. And that’s why I want to have more people to come to the Games and attract their interest.”

Just as Kunieda changed her view about wheelchairs, she wants to change perceptions about people with impairments and wheelchairs. And this she is bent on doing with her new offensive style of tennis, when she comes on the court at Tokyo 2020 along with the players she admires.

Funamizu is on a personal mission to change perceptions and stereotypes about people with impairment.
Funamizu is on a personal mission to change perceptions and stereotypes about people with impairment.
Provided by Funamizu Shiori