The Japanese athlete won the 2020 French Open singles wheelchair title - her second Grand Slam singles title this year after her victory at the Australian Open back in February
KAMIJI Yui has just won her fourth French Open title in the women's singles in an all-Japanese finals against OHTANI Momoko, defeating her compatriot 6-2 6-1. It was the first time in Grand Slam history that the two Japanese players have faced off in the Grand Slam single finals.
The 26-year-old has won the French Open singles titles in 2014, 2017 and 2018. With this year's victory in both the French Open and Australian Open, Kamiji has won the eighth Grand Slams singles title of her career. She also has 16 double titles alongside her Paralympic success in Rio 2016, where she won bronze in both the women's singles and doubles event.
Tokyo 2020 spoke to Kamiji about her journey as a wheelchair tennis player, how rivalry motivates her and her plans of winning gold at the home Games next year.
Her first Paralympic Games
Kamiji has a memory she can still vividly recall — the London 2012 Paralympic Games, where she made her Paralympic debut as a wheelchair tennis player. It was a life-changing experience.
“The spectators there were very knowledgeable. They were encouraging and supportive. Being Japanese, I was not a home player, but they applauded warmly and were genuine in their support. I had never experienced this before as a player, so this atmosphere left a striking impression on me,” she said.
Tennis is extremely popular in the UK, where the Paralympics has its origins and the Wimbledon Championships are held. The spectators see the subtle difficulties in the play and give generous applause to players who overcome them. It is truly rewarding for the players to be acknowledged and commended for their play.
“The spectators have a real compassion for people with impairment. The children seemed to have done a lot of research in advance at school. The spectators weren’t merely having fun, but rather, truly trying to support us athletes by making in-depth observations.”
Kamiji was 18-years-old at the time. At a crossroads in her life, she needed to make a decision about her future.
Before coming to London, she was ready to quit wheelchair tennis after the Games, feeling satisfied about having achieved her goal of playing at the Paralympic Games. However, after experiencing the atmosphere of the Games as well as both the joy of winning and the disappointment of losing in the quarter-finals, she felt a strong urge to continue playing.
“In that sense, I was lucky that I made my Paralympic debut at the London 2012 Paralympic Games,” she recalled.
“I felt nothing but frustration” despite having earned a bronze medal
After deciding to continue playing, she achieved exponential growth in her performance. In 2014, she won the calendar Grand Slam in doubles and was ranked world No. 1 in both singles and doubles. However, she faced a tough time as a gold medal favourite at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
The attention she got after serving as a flag-bearer of the Japanese team, made her rush herself in the match to gain results too soon.
Although she won a bronze medal, she said: “I felt nothing but frustration after the Games. I did feel the relief of having earned a medal, but I wasn’t happy. I still feel the same way even today as I look back.”
She did learn something from her experience at Rio 2016.
“When I returned to Japan, people around me were really happy for me to have gained a bronze medal. Before the bronze medal match following my loss in the semi-finals, many people sent me messages of encouragement despite the time difference between Brazil and Japan, urging me to play my own style of tennis without worrying about the result," she said.
"I owe it to these people that I was able to switch my mindset and give my best in the bronze medal match, which resulted in my medal. Through this experience, it really came home to me that I was being supported by a lot of people, and I felt a renewed appreciation for them,” Kamiji reflected.
Talking to myself is essential during play
For three and a half years since the Rio 2016 Games, Kamiji has focused on achieving growth as a player through a process of trial and error.
“Before Rio, I had been working on a new technique, but I couldn’t take it to a level I could confidently use in matches, which was a mistake. Now I’m also trying out new techniques, but this time I’m using them in matches from an early stage so that I can learn from my errors and consider what steps I should take next,” she explained.
Originally, Kamiji’s style of tennis had been to create structured patterns of play and wait for chances to arrive, but she realised that she needed to hit hard balls and put pressure on the opponent if she wanted to be on a par with strong and speedy international players.
She is now trying to change her style to hitting faster balls and taking an offensive approach at an earlier stage instead of waiting for opportunities to arrive.
Talking to herself is a crucial element in Kamiji’s play.
“The more I concentrate on the match, the more doubts arise over how I should have played. As it’s too much to process in my mind, I verbalise my thoughts out loud. When I talk to myself while playing, I can maintain a broader perspective and see things objectively," the 26-year-old athlete explained.
"I try to keep a balance. For example, when I’m playing well, I say things to calm myself down, and when I’m not doing well, I tell myself to look on the bright side, saying things like, ‘The good thing about that error was that I chose to do this or that,’ to seek neutralisation."
Poised to enjoy the Paralympic Games
Kamiji has also formed the habit of jotting down in her “tennis notebook” any notions or insights she gains during practice, which has been prompting her to contemplate even more.
“My condition changes by the day, and I want to keep the fluctuations to a minimum. The differences can only be perceived intuitively, and the perception fades away with time. That’s why I began to take notes so that I can look back. Sometimes, what worked yesterday doesn’t work today, or vice versa, but whichever way, taking notes has given me more food for thought,” she said.
The more experienced she becomes, the greater challenges she needs to face, which is also leading her to contemplate how she can raise her play to an even higher level. To achieve further evolution, this process is essential. Kamiji is currently in the middle of this growth phase.
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will be Kamiji’s third Games. Her goal is, of course, to win a gold medal, but she also has another target.
“At the London 2012 Games, I wasn’t able to progress beyond the quarter-finals, but I had great fun because it was my first Paralympic Games. At the Rio 2016 Games, I did win a bronze medal, but I can’t say that I had so much fun. More than anything, I felt frustration and disappointment. At the Tokyo 2020 Games, I will of course aim for a gold medal, but on top of that, I hope to be able to enjoy playing,” she said.
If she can enjoy her third Paralympic Games in Tokyo, just as she did at her first Games in London, results are sure to follow.