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January 16 • 11:47
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Wheelchair tennis ace Kunieda in prime form to defend gold



August 28, 2012
After winning a gold medal in men's singles at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, Shingo Kunieda hit the big time in spring 2009, when he became Japan's first professional wheelchair tennis player.

Multiple sponsorship deals rolled in, and the sport began attracting a wider fan base in country.

For Kunieda, suddenly the world seemed his oyster.

But a short six months later, the right-hander injured his right elbow. He continued playing despite the pain because he felt that if he was not able to make a living as a professional, he would not be able to pave the way for future generations of professional wheelchair tennis players. So Kunieda hid the pain and continued competing, telling himself that failure was not an option.

Slowly, he got results. In September 2011, he won the U.S. Open, but his injury still nagged him.

"If only I had no pain," he remembers telling himself.

Finally, with London 2012 on the horizon and the chance to defend his Paralympic title, the 28-year-old Chiba native decided to have surgery in February to correct his ailing elbow.

In July, Kunieda played in his fourth competition since his surgery. During the semifinals, he faced the world's No. 1 player, Stephane Houdet of France, who had beaten Kunieda in three straight matches. This time out, Kunieda was the victor and defeated Houdet on his home turf in France.

"Even though I could use 'recovering from surgery' as an excuse for a loss, I had the desire to win," Kunieda says. "I was able to return to the front lines of competition."

That win propelled Kunieda to victories in his next three tournaments, erasing any self-doubts and paving the way for him to reclaim Olympic glory.

"I can honestly say that I am stronger than I was before the surgery," the defending champion says with confidence.

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