Shingo Kunieda & Diede de Groot: Wheelchair tennis champs
One of the fastest-growing wheelchair sports in the world, wheelchair tennis is practised in more than 100 different countries.
The sport, which integrates very easily with able-bodied tennis, has attracted talented athletes globally.
Grand slam champions Shingo Kunieda and Diede de Groot have made names for themselves as wheelchair tennis legends and are inspiring the world.
On 22 January 2022, Shingo announced his retirement from wheelchair tennis, bringing down the curtain on a 21-year career in which he had dominated the sport, amassing a mind-boggling 50 Grand Slam titles.
But it was his Paralympic triumph on home soil that proved the most emotional of all.
Shingo was born in Tokyo on 21 February 1984. At the age of nine, he was diagnosed with a spinal tumour and underwent surgery that left him unable to use his legs.
He continued to play basketball with his friends after school, despite being the only player in a wheelchair, but could not find a wheelchair team to join.
It was his mother who suggested that he try tennis instead. Shingo started playing at 11 and entered his first tournament a year later – he lost in the first round, but said later that he had learned that “tennis was fun for me”.
It took practice to learn how to manoeuvre his wheelchair around while playing – but with time, Shingo’s speed around the court would become one of his greatest strengths.
Shingo made his debut on the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Tour in 2001, at the age of 17, and claimed his first senior title soon afterwards.
At the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, he teamed up with Satoshi Saida to win a gold medal in the men’s doubles.
Together, the pair would secure Shingo his first major title, in the doubles at Wimbledon in 2006.
He added his first singles Grand Slam at the 2007 Australian Open, overcoming defending champion Michaël Jérémiasz in the final, 6–3, 3–6, 6–3.
Between 23 January 2008 and 20 November 2010, he racked up the most consecutive wheelchair tennis men's singles match wins – 106.
Rio and redemption
Shingo had enjoyed Paralympic success since his debut in 2004. But Rio 2016 presented him with the greatest challenge of his career.
Plagued by an elbow injury, Shingo suffered a painful loss to Joachim Gerard in the quarter-finals of the singles and had to contend himself with a bronze in the men’s doubles.
In the aftermath of the Paralympics, Shingo considered retiring from the sport.
I don’t think of them as wheelchairs; they’re my legs.
– Shingo Kunieda
But instead, he decide to dramatically overhaul his tennis career, changing his technique, and coaches and wheelchair. His goal was redemption at his home Paralympics: Tokyo 2020.
The COVID pandemic saw the event delayed for a year, and when the Paralympics finally went ahead, the wheelchair tennis matches were played out behind closed doors.
But Shingo did not allow that – nor the pressure of being a home favourite – to affect him.
“After the Tokyo Games it really felt like it [wheelchair tennis] was now being seen as a sport,” Shingo declared. “Finally I could just play tennis.”
Game, set and match
His Paralympic success only served to spur Shingo on to greater heights in 2022.
He claimed the Australian and French Open singles crowns before taking on Alfie Hewitt in the Wimbledon final, hoping for his first-ever singles title on the grass at SW17.
In an epic match, Hewitt served for the championship four times, only for Shingo to turn the tables, eventually prevailing 4–6, 7–5, 7–6.
He had won his first Wimbledon singles title – and his 50th Grand Slam title overall, the most Grand Slam wheelchair tennis titles.
He also became the first men’s wheelchair tennis player to complete a singles Career Grand Slam and Career Golden Slam.
Hewitt gained a measure of revenge in the final of the 2022 US Open, defeating Shingo 7–6, 6–1.
His retirement announcement soon afterwards ensured that he bowed out of wheelchair tennis at the same position that he had occupied for most of his career – at the very top.
Shingo's Grand Slam Titles:
|Australian Open||11 (2007-11, 2013-15, 2018, 2020, 2022)||8 (2007-11, 2013-15)|
|French Open||8 (2007-10, 2014-15, 2018, 2022)||8 (2008, 2010-13, 2015-16, 2019)|
|Wimbledon||1 (2022)*||4 (2006, 2013-14, 2022)|
|US Open||8 (2007, 2009-11, 2014-15, 2020-21)||2 (2007, 2014)|
*no wheelchair singles competitions at Wimbledon until 2016
Diede de Groot
At the age of seven, as part of her rehabilitation, Diede made the decision to take up wheelchair tennis.
Not being dependent on a wheelchair for everyday mobility, she had to learn how to use it around the court – but Diede’s dedication and hours of practice would eventually pay off, with spectacular results.
While playing in tournaments, Diede was talent-spotted and invited to join the Dutch national tennis program.
She gained advice on both on- and off-court matters from the legendary Dutch wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer, who won 48 Grand Slam titles and went 10 years undefeated in singles competition.
Diede flourished, rising through the ranks until she was the No.1-ranked player on the world junior wheelchair tour.
After turning professional, one of Diede’s first achievements was to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she claimed the silver medal in the women’s doubles alongside Marjolein Buis.
The next year, Diede made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open, losing in her first singles match and making the final of the doubles.
But she would not have to wait long for major glory.
Just six months later, Diede beat Sabine Ellerbrock 6–0, 6–4 on the grass at Wimbledon to claim her first Grand Slam title.
She added her first doubles Grand Slam at the US Open later that year, partnering Marjolein Buis.
As Diede continued to rack up both singles and doubles titles, the records started to fall.
Victory at the 2019 French Open completed her set of singles titles at the four annual major or Grand Slam tournaments – the Australian, French and US Opens, and Wimbledon – making Diede the first wheelchair tennis player to complete a Career Grand Slam in singles.
(Wimbledon staged its first wheelchair singles tournaments in 2016). Even the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could not slow her momentum: 2021 would give Diede the opportunity to make more sporting history.
I’m not chasing numbers… Maybe I get them, maybe I don’t, [but] I don’t want that to affect how I view my career.
– Diede de Groot
Going for gold
Comprising all four major titles and an Olympic or Paralympic gold, a “Golden Slam” is one of the rarest and hardest achievements in tennis.
Before 2021, it had been accomplished in a calendar year only once in the history of tennis: by the legendary Steffi Graf, in 1988.
Thirty-three years later, could Diede match her? She swept the major singles titles, facing the same opponent in three of the four finals: her great rival, Yui Kamiji.
And in order to complete the Golden Slam, Diede would need to defeat Kamiji a fourth time – but this time on home soil, in the singles final of the Tokyo Paralympics.
The showdown took place on 3 September 2021, and it was Diedre who prevailed, 6–3, 7–6, to seal the first wheelchair tennis Golden Slam in singles.
Diede also triumphed in the Paralympic women’s doubles, playing alongside Aniek van Koot. To complete a year of unparalleled success, she added the season-ending Wheelchair Tennis Masters title.
Slam to slam
If her competitors wondered whether Diede’s golden 2021 might diminish her competitive edge, they were in for a disappointment.
Diede went from strength to strength in 2022, going the entire season undefeated in singles competition – a winning streak of 38 matches – and becoming the first consecutive calendar-year Grand Slam tennis champion.
She picked up 10 titles in total, including victories at all four major tournaments and the year-ending NEC Wheelchair Singles Masters.
In the final of the US Open, Diede overcame Yui Kamiji 3–6, 6–1, 6–1 to become the first wheelchair player to win five consecutive titles at Flushing Meadows.
With this unprecedented run of titles, Diede is in danger of making her domination of the sport look easy – but the truth is very different.
She said that her win in the US Open final showed just how hard she has to work for her success and has also described the “big cloud of pressure” that can build up with every fresh achievement.
At the age of just 26, there’s no telling just how many titles Diede can go on to collect, and she is often asked about the possibility of one day surpassing her mentor Esther Vergeer’s record of 48 Grand Slam titles (21 in singles, 27 in doubles).
But however, many titles and awards Diede eventually wins, she has already written her name in the tennis history books.
Diede's Grand Slam Titles:
|Australian Open||5 (2018-19, 2021-23)||4 (2019, 2021-23)|
|French Open||2 (2019, 2021-22)||5 (2018-19, 2020-22)|
|Wimbledon||4 (2017-18, 2021-22)||2 (2018-19)|
|US Open||5 (2018-22)||5 (2017-19, 2021-22)|