Joachim Gerard sent shockwaves around the world of wheelchair tennis on the last day of the 2015 NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters as he beat world No.1 and defending champion Shingo Kunieda of Japan 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 to win his first Masters men’s singles title at Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London.
Meanwhile, Jiske Griffioen clinched her second Masters women’s singles title and David Wagner won his eighth Masters quad title on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where they were both singles medallists at London 2012.
After ending Kunieda’s 77 match winning streak earlier in the week, world No.4 Gerard became the first player to earn back-to-back wins against the Japanese top seed since the summer of 2012 as he earned a spectacular 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 victory.
Gerard was the first player to hold serve in the men’s final and with his backhand finding it’s mark time and time again he soon turned a 3-1 lead into a 5-2 lead.
Kunieda demonstrated the talent and resilience that had seen him unbeaten since January 2014 until earlier this week as he levelled up at 5-5. However, Gerard’s precise groundstrokes came to the fore again as he etched out a 6-5 lead and two huge first serves set up two match points. Gerard needed just the first as he delivered a fierce forehand into the corner.
Kunieda came back strongly to take the second set 6-2 and carried the momentum into the final set for a 3-0 lead. However,Gerard rediscovered his form in devastating fashion with six games in a row.
Kunieda put a backhand into the net to match point down and Gerard calmly played a forehand winner behind Kunieda to seal a famous victory.
“I’m speechless. For the moment I’m just happy, very, very happy to win and beat Shingo twice. He was unbeaten for nearly two years, I just want to enjoy it,” said Gerard.
“Despite beating him earlier in the week I wasn’t overly confident because I knew he would play better. Today was a really good match for him and for me and we put on a good show for wheelchair tennis. My two strong points were my serve and my return and I just tried to play my tennis. This is for sure the best achievement of my career. It’s the best eight players in the world here and I’ve won which is amazing.
“This has given my confidence ahead of Rio but I know I still have to work a lot because I know Shingo will work a lot, as will everyone else. Now I have to train for about a month and then I’m going to Australia in January and will try to make my first Grand Slam final.”
Kuneida said: “It was a tough match for me but I don’t think I played badly, he played very well. I said in the interview on court that he deserved the win today definitely.
“Joachim played a good game from 3-0 down, especially his serve and his return of serve which was excellent. On this surface the ball is very fast and that worked well for him. Next year is a very important year, my biggest year is the Paralympics and of course I want to start well in Australia so I will work hard for that.”
By comparison the women’s singles final ended in relatively straightforward victory for Dutch world No.1 Griffioen, who beat Germany’s Sabine Ellerbrock 6-2, 6-2.
Griffioen forged into a 4-1 lead before struggling with her serve in the sixth game. However two games later the top seed served more assuredly to close out the opening set. World No. 5 Ellerbrock led for the first time at 2-1 in the second set, but after a gruelling three set semifinal she was not able to produce her best and Griffioen went on to win her second NEC Masters title since 2012.
“This win means a lot to me, especially because I had such a good first half to the season, winning my first two Grand Slam singles titles and becoming world No.1. I struggled a little bit more in the second half, so to finish with this one means a lot to me,” said Griffioen.
“We worked on a lot of things from 2014, we changed some little things and it kind of all clicked into place. I was a little bit nervous because I’ve had some big fights already this week and I was feeling a little bit unwell. I was nervous about playing one more match, but once I got the first game at the start those nerves went away and only came back a little bit during the second set because she was so close.
“My next focus is Australia which will be a different kind of pressure me having to defend my title but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a big year coming up with the Rio Paralympics so it’s going to be great. I’m aiming for a gold medal in Rio, I have a bronze and silver but I don’t have a gold yet so that is my aim. It’s always good to come back here after the London Paralympics, we got a good crowd today and lots of media attention so I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Wagner built a 3-0 lead at the start of the quad final and had three set points on his own serve at 5-2, but a major shift in momentum followed and Sithole won five points in a row to retrieve one of the breaks against him and continued to control the flow to lead for the first time at 6-5.
Wagner managed to force the tie-break, but having been 5-2 and three set points down Sithole had three set points of his own at 6-3 in the breaker. However, he was unable to take advantage and a double fault saw Sithole go a set point down again, with Wagner needing no further invitation to take the opener.
Wagner and Sithole exchanged breaks to leave the second set poised at 4-4 and as Sithole tried to serve to restore parity once again as he saved one match point. However, a backhand that caught the top of the net gave Wagner his second set point and Sithole brought the match to a disappointing end after his earlier efforts as a double fault saw Wagner retain his title.
“It’s an awesome way to finish the year. The world’s best players are here and you have to beat them all to win and I was able to do that so it’s such a good feeling,” said Wagner.
“I don’t know what it is about London but it seems to go well here for me, the organisers put on such a great event that it means I can focus on my job every time I step onto court. It was tough, everyone is always going to fight and we all want to win. But I think that’s what makes a true champion, to fight to the bitter end and everyone here is going to do that no matter what.
“It’s an exciting time for wheelchair tennis and quad tennis in particular, we’ve grown in leaps and bounds, we still have a few steps to go to get the sport more exposure but it’ll just continue to get bigger and better.
“Now we shift goals and focus towards Rio, again. Same guys, same young guys looking to take what I have and my goal is to not let that happen. My goals are to qualify for Rio and then stay as highly ranked as possible and step on the court and play the best I can and hope that brings home two golds for the United States.”