Shingo Kunieda was on the verge of a challenging but comfortable three-set victory on Saturday in the final of the Rakuten Japan Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships. But 16-year-old Tokito Oda had other ideas against the defending Tokyo titlist.
The rising star saved a series of match points as Kunieda served for the match at 5-1 in the third set, then powered to a 6-5 lead and moved within two points of glory in his own attempt to serve out the victory. But 28-time Grand Slam champion Kunieda would not be denied, as he roared back to claim a famous victory in front of a captivated crowd in the Ariake Colosseum.
In a 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(3) win, the 38-year-old's age and wisdom trumped Oda's youth and exuberance — but only just, after two hours and 27 minutes of world-class tennis from both Japanese stars.
"It was a very tough match. Tokito had a great performance today," Kunieda said in a post-match press conference. "Never giving up was the key today.
"I'm very happy to play in front of so many spectators. If they enjoyed our match, it makes me very happy."
The top seed took a commanding 5-1 lead in the final set when Oda fell victim to an unlucky net cord on break point. But Oda swung freely with his hopes all but over, and connected on a barrage of winners as he erased match points on return. He managed to break to close to 5-2, then grew in confidence with each game and seemed destined to finish as champion after securing a 6-5 advantage.
"I thought, 'I can't stop here, I can't stop playing,'" Oda said of his mentality when trailing 1-5. "I wanted to play more"
But Kunieda used every bit of his experience to clinch his 119th ITF singles title, and his seventh of the year.
With Oda serving for the match at 6-5, 30/30, Kunieda ripped a return winner and forced a tie-break one point later thanks to an error. Kunieda double-faulted to open the decisive tie-break, but commanded the exchanges from there as Oda could not maintain the sky-high level that fuelled his comeback.
"When it was 6-6 it was difficult," said the second seed. "He was playing better than the rest of the set. I wanted to play better, but he was better than me."
Kunieda succeeded with a simple strategy down the stretch: "Just focus, one by one," he said. "Try to hit hard against him."
Kunieda has now won both editions of the Tokyo wheelchair singles competition, having claimed both the singles and doubles (with Sweden's Stefan Olsson) titles at the inaugural event in 2019. He also won his third singles gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics last summer at Ariake Tennis Park.
"Some titles I already forgot" he joked, discussing his decorated career, "but this one I will be remember for the rest of my life."
Oda was seeking his 15th ITF singles title after winning eight trophies in 2021 — all on clay.
"The result is not good for me, but for the match, for wheelchair tennis, for the Japanese people that came here, it was good to show [my tennis]," said Oda, who cried what he described as tears of joy following the match. "I love this sport and I want to show how good this sport is."
Despite narrow defeats in both the singles and doubles finals, Oda was able to take positives away from his first experience playing in a packed stadium court: "I was a little bit nervous for the first time," he said. "But I wanted to play in front of many people when I started this sport. It was a dream come true.
"Even though I lost the match, there were a lot of good things."
In Kunieda's post-match comments, he compared the budding rivalry between him and Oda to that of Spaniards Rafael Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz. The comparison is a fitting one, with Oda sure to match Alcaraz's rise to the very top of the game in the coming years.
As Kunieda told his opponent following a respectful post-match handshake: "It's your time to fly!"
Photo Credit: Hiroshi Sato