The Yomiuri ShimbunIn good times and bad, wheelchair tennis coach Hiromichi Maruyama has always been there to give Shingo Kunieda that extra push.
And as the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics loom, the two are now steaming toward their goal — to win a third consecutive gold in singles at the Paralympics.
Kunieda was at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum in late May for the BNP Paribas World Team Cup, his first event after undergoing surgery on his right elbow in April. Japan and France advanced to the final, and Kunieda faced Stephane Houdet, a longtime rival he had beaten to take the gold at the 2012 London Games.
Accuracy failed Kunieda early on and he dropped the opening set. Unable to regain his rhythm, the 32-year-old also fell behind in the second set, setting Houdet up at match point. When Kunieda missed a shot wide after a fierce rally, Maruyama, seated on the bench for the match, looked skyward. But he immediately changed his demeanor, slapping a positive expression in his face and clapping his hands to praise Kunieda’s efforts. Despite the loss, the match showed a smooth recovery from the surgery as the Rio Games near.
Maruyama, 46, crossed paths with Kunieda in 2001, when he was a coach at a tennis club in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, a place that willingly accepted players with disabilities. Kunieda, who has been in a wheelchair since 9 because of a spinal disease, was a third-year student in high school at the time they met. Kunieda’s dynamic side-to-side play conjured up one thought for Maruyama: “This is a talented player who could make it to the top.”
Maruyama offered the teenager his services as a coach. The pair won one tournament after another, and Kunieda climbed to the top of the world rankings in 2006.
Learning not to be a ‘caregiver’
Maruyama, an able-bodied person, initially got involved with coaching a wheelchair player when he was 27. Before that, he was a player who rose as high as 10th in the domestic junior rankings, and took part in the inter-collegiate championship.
He played for a corporate team, and subsequently joined the Kashiwa club to help nurture the next generation of players. Because of that, he was not exactly passionate about coaching wheelchair players at the beginning. But one day, a wheelchair player asked him, with a serious look, “Are you a caregiver?”
Maruyama thought he had been attentive to wheelchair players, doing things like carrying their bags and opening doors for them. He realized, however, that these players were very perceptive, feeling that he didn’t regard them as true athletes. Maruyama felt ashamed of himself because of his attitude toward them.
So to establish his own coaching methods, he tried playing tennis in a wheelchair, and was astonished by the difficulty. First of all, he couldn’t even catch up to the ball. Even when he could, his arms were already tired from pushing the wheelchair, and he was unable to swing the racket.
“This is not the tennis I know,” Maruyama thought. “I’ll fail if I continue teaching similar methods.”
He kept practicing from a wheelchair every weekend, though his arms were stiff. As he started instructing more wheelchair players, Maruyama learned the way the upper body movements differ among players, depending on amputations and physical abilities. This prompted him to begin learning about disabilities.
No. 1 supporter
Maruyama said his coaching methods — developed through trial and error — combined with Kunieda’s talent, can help the player reach further heights. Because of that belief, Maruyama backed Kunieda’s desire to turn pro. Kunieda made his wishes known after winning the gold at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, saying, “I want to provide dreams to children with disabilities.”
Maruyama had some apprehension, but he made up his mind to support Kunieda. Prize money for wheelchair tennis tournaments is usually about only one-hundredth of those for events for able-bodied players. Because there were no professionals in Japan at that time, Kunieda’s inner circle was opposed to the idea — except for Maruyama.
“I’ll be the No. 1 member of your fan club,” Maruyama vowed, and pushed Kunieda toward his dream.
Kunieda’s journey hasn’t been free of hardships. In February 2012, he had surgery on his right elbow and was unable to play for a month — the first time he had been off the court for that long.
The coach blamed himself for having put Kunieda through rigorous training routines — such as the practice of hitting 30,000 forehand strokes to commit his form to muscle memory because that was the player’s weak area. But Kunieda devoted himself to weight training during his time off the court, and returned with an improved physique.
He won the gold in London, becoming the first player to grab consecutive Paralympic titles in singles. Following London, Maruyama left the club and began instructing Kunieda and other wheelchair players exclusively on a freelance basis. He also started putting on a tournament for junior players in search of the “next Kunieda.”
The two wheelchair tennis professionals are now surely determined to achieve a feat no one has done before — win three consecutive Paralympic golds.