Despite almost retiring after London 2012 - Japan's wheelchair tennis legend, Yui Kamiji, has gone from strength to strength. She's since claimed 10 single's grand slam titles, 16 doubles grand slam titles and an Olympic bronze medal. Whilst her first gold is in her sights, we chatted to Yui about the importance of strong role models, why the covid crisis gave her some unexpected opportunities and how to be a great doubles partner with someone from another culture.
Episode 11 Smiling all the way to Tokyo
Tue, 3/2 1:07PM • 38:07
japan, paralympics, tennis, japanese, sport, pray, play, tokyo, wheelchair tennis, people, tournament, wheelchair, singles, athlete, year, game, prayers, takoyaki, started, question
Welcome to Japan sports stories. On this episode we have a true legend of the Japanese tennis court. Despite almost retiring after London 2012. Our guest has run a total of 10 singles Grand Slams and 16 doubles Grand Slams at the age of 26. She's already third in the all time major title rankings for women's wheelchair tennis. With the Tokyo games looming he's looking to capture her first Olympic gold joining us from her quarantine hotel room in Japan and delighted to welcome up committee. YUI thank you so much for joining us. So you can you just tell us a little bit about your early life in Japan?
Yeah, I was really like to play sports since I was little. I went to swimming school and played pebble tennis and many other sports. I have been interested in foreign countries since I was a child. I wanted to go abroad even before I met Virtua Tennis.
Which countries did you have an interest in? Why did you want to go?
I have no idea when I was young, but just have dreamed about if I stay not in Japan then I meet some other people. Yeah, it's really interesting for me
completely understand that was why I love being a Paralympian because I could travel to different countries. And you know, that's how we came. I came to travel to Japan and ultimately how we started the podcast. So did you watch foreign TV then?
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I watched and when I am on tour, I don't really understand the language. But I tried to watch and when people talk to each other, I can see the pace. So yeah, try to understand them.
So whereabouts did you grow up in Japan? Was it in a big city with lots of international people?
No, I I was born and raised in the west of Japan. My parents and sister. She is four years older than me. My city is not very big, but it's near the sea. So yeah, it's very beautiful city.
That's Hugo prefecture, isn't it? Yeah. Yeah. So what is yoga famous for
may be pink octopus.
Do you know takoyaki? Huh? Yeah, we have a Kawasaki. It's special in my city Villa to takoyaki. But we made from more than takaaki Mike loves
any any story about food Mike's going to love so we may come back to that later. Later.
We definitely see that you were on. Was that the Setouchi night guy? Yes, yes. See, I used to live on that. And it's so beautiful with all the islands popping up around it. You know, we'll come back to that later when we have to talk about places to go. So how did you discover wheelchair tennis growing up in Chicago in a in a small town?
Yeah. My disability is spinal bifida since I was born, and I could walk a little and my favourite subject was PE at school. But as my body grew, it became difficult for me to walk. And when my mother saw it, she thought about the sport that I could do with with a wheelchair. Yeah, first, my parents both played basketball when they were in high school. So I prayed with a basketball for a few years. Then my sister entered junior high school and she she started to play tennis. I always fought hard everything. So I started to play tennis as well.
So you're from a very sporting family sport was very important in your family life.
Yes, I still like both basketball and tennis. But I felt the charm of the game of tennis, which can produce good and bad results, depending on me. It's really fun for me some more
more of an individual sport than than a team sport.
they're both incredibly fast, technical, exciting games out there. wheelchair basketball that they call it murderball I think. So you have a natural sort of competitiveness and you want to be involved in these really high energy sports.
Do a quick question. Did you start playing soft tennis as well when you were younger? Or was it hard tennis?
No, I couldn't find any anywhere can play some tennis. So just a normal tennis
at that time. When you started playing wheelchair tennis whether there was it with a club for athletes with an impairment, was it? Because that's quite, you know, technical sport? So with the good coaches in the area?
No, not professional court wasn't there. So I was in the wheelchair tennis group, small group. And yeah, they are also for also prayers to create the tour the tournament. So they they taught me how to control wheelchair and how to hit the ball everything.
Because that's incredible because one of the unique features I think of wheelchair tennis as a sport is that combination of having to move the wheelchair incredibly quickly. And coordinate that with high technical shots in time, I mean, I think it's, it's, it's unique in all of those qualities incredibly, and you're very, very fast around
you have to see about you and also your opponent. And yeah, many things at the same time.
I was just a runner, I just run around in circles most. So you became very successful very quickly. At age 14. You actually won the or Japan masters. Yeah, three years after starting the game. Yeah. How was that? You know, we use so cute galaxy nakoda. Your junior high school? Yeah.
Yeah. Junior High School.
So how is that? How is that tournament? How is that feeling?
Oh, I wasn't like, like, I want to be number one in the in in Japan and in the world. But I wanted to play tennis more and more. Because it's really, yeah, I was really enjoying love to win. I just pray to have many experience. You know,
this is something one of our other guests, one of our other guests. submitty Srinivasan said the same thing about skating that that actually performing and and enjoying it was much more important than the metals. Do you think the same?
Yeah, exactly the same? I think
so. You've won your first tournament, the age of 14, when was your first sort of international trip and that time where you felt like you'd become an international wheelchair tennis player.
I play a Team Cup when I was 15 years old. It was my first time to go around the country. And yeah, it was in in Nottingham. Good place. Yeah. And yeah, it was really fun. It's also my first time to play like team competition. So it's a little bit different than other tournament. I wore national team jacket and pray for for Japan. So yeah, it's nice experience and I met some new prayers. You know, I also met some some famous prayers at in in Japan because they cute ornaments, few international tournaments in Japan, but I couldn't see more people. So yeah, was really fun.
At the time who who was the most famous Japanese wheelchair tennis player?
Of course, single Grenada.
That's what I was. That, that that's what brings me to the next question was so what some Grenada sent us, you know, sounds like he's whole you know, he results with a with a a big influence on you.
Yes, of course. When I started to play tennis, he's already top of the prayer. And he's really like, hope athlete. But when I talk with him, he's like, like, he's my older brother. You know? He's very kind and yeah, I I think when I met him pasta last time, he asked me what I was praying game Nintendo. He asked me what I doing not about tennis. I I already knew about him but it's it doesn't match his face and his name. So I was wondering who is
Yeah, my keys. Yeah, very nice person.
Did he looked after you though? Did he teach you some things or about how to be? How to not maybe technically but how to be an international athlete how to deal with travel and everything? Yes. Yes.
Many things. A lot of things he taught me Yeah, how to travel and play tennis sometimes with me. After a few years, I prayed more international tournament. I try to see what he does. And yeah last minute thing learned about loan from him.
Japan's very very very strong in wheelchair tennis. Why do you think that is? Do you think that's down to Kenya does he see to leading the way?
yeah, I think he he and also add a legend prayers Lee lead other prayer other young prayers. But I think also Tokyo Tokyo Paralympics after decided to help in Tokyo more more people started to pray
and a lot of work being done to promote tennis in Japan.
Yes, we have some camp for beginner to yeah to explain how to how we pray
when you cocoa and some incense or third year high school final year, you made your Paralympic debut. And that was in London. Yes. So can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
At that time? My My goal is to create Paralympics, so in my mind, I have many, many things, many new things after Paralympics not just play tennis. And I want I wanted to go out to a country to study. And yeah, so many things. So I wanted to stop to play tennis after London Paralympics.
Yeah. We're very glad you didn't stop.
Yeah, but I changed my mind in London. Yeah, I watched singles match singles final when he got gold medal. And I also watched women's final and both are very, very good match. And yeah, like, I felt like I wanted to be there. And also when I watched my teammates doubles, I feel like if I if I pray next Paralympics. I am a part of Japanese team. But if I stopped to pray, then I'm just spectators. It's very sad for me. So yeah, the big point to continue decided to continue to pray.
Me, well, we are delighted that you carried on. Because after that you went on, you became the first non Dutch person to win the wheelchair tennis masters, which is a fantastic achievement on its own. And from then on you went from strength to strength in your singles and doubles. So you won three out of the four grand slams for singles. You've won the Australian twice the French four times in the US twice. You know, how does it feel to become a Grand Slam champion after almost retiring.
I had good choice.
But before we move on too much further, I wanted to ask you about the the London Paralympic experience because a lot of Paralympic athletes say that London was the best ever turning games and that was your first game. So the way that the British public supported the Paralympics, I think was was was really unique. What was your experience as as an athlete competing in London like,
Hmm, I just really fun. I prayed British prayers in first round. So many spectators were there. Of course they support it for their own country prayers, but they also crop their hands to me if I took some points, and yeah, it's really loud. But yeah, it's very excited for me.
Were you surprised at how passionate the British fun?
Yeah, because I've never seen foot Park Stadium before in vilja. tennis.
I think you've just made 60 or 70 million new friends
antastic Shall we roll on to the career?
I want to talk about reo.
Or we can talk about reo. Go no ask about reo.
So the Rio Paralympics of four years later, you're now one of the top wheelchair tennis players in the world. You know, having been ranked number one was it 2014? I am but we're at Rio, you actually got to carry the flag for the Japanese team in the opening ceremony?
How was that
as an experience was amazing. Yeah, I didn't I couldn't tell tell other people until the government to pay that. So yeah, I was really surprised. And I wanted to tell everybody, but I couldn't. It's difficult. And yeah, I deal with it. Because I have my, my important much, of course, for her for everyone. But if I can have it, if it's okay or not, I'm very nervous of also. But yeah. After after doing that, it's just good memory forever, I think.
And of course, in Rio, you got to win your first Paralympic medal.
Were you happy with with that bronze medal?
I'm not happy, because I lost one. Yeah, but after I got metal, many, many people send me text. And when I go home when I went home, many people say Congrats. Congratulations, then I feel better. But yeah, after the month, I just feel sad. And yeah,
it's an incredible achievement. So in Rio, you 22 Yes. moto Moto G, can you play? lots of time to build on on that metal? And, you know, clearly, you've just won the French Open two weeks ago.
Yeah. So you know, you're still you're still on on top form and maybe talking a little bit about what it's like to to be a we're an international athlete, international wheelchair, tennis athlete, during the COVID pandemic, because travelling tournament's everything you're talking to is now from. You're in isolation. quarantine. Sorry, that's what I'm looking for. In a hotel in somewhere in Japan.
Yeah. In two weeks,
if the two weeks. Yeah. Can you go outside at all? Can you go shopping? Can you go to a convenience?
Yeah, I can go. Yeah, I can go somewhere to have something to eat.
But how has this year been for you?
I enjoyed that time. I yeah, we we stopped? I think. Yeah, the tournament had stopped since March. Yeah, we couldn't pray like half year until Richard tennis was back from the US Open in September, in September, but I never had that break since I started to play tennis. So yeah, I studied again, and I'm not bought because I had many things to do. I really enjoyed cooking as well.
What was your favourite thing to cook?
I can have many other country food in many other country. So I tried to cook each country food like Thai or Korean or some other things. Yeah. You'd like
to get Korean? Yes. Yeah.
What licence Did you get whilst you're in lockdown?
I studying Japanese English. English, and I'm trying to study Korean and Chinese and French because I like I love language. Yeah, I study language. And also I had licence for food. Like nutritionists nutrition. Yeah, I was studying like that. And yeah,
so no time to get bored if you're studying Chinese and Korean and cooking and yet you still manage to keep your, your tennis, you know, at the very, very top level. How did you do that to come back into the French Open and win without a tournament
Yeah, it's it was difficult to, to create in us. I was disappointed that I couldn't pray as much as I expected. And yeah, it's very different between practice and tournament much game is very different. So I had some time to to fix that. So I thought I would like to play as much as I could in France. So I was very motivated. Even it's short time to prepare between us and French.
Amazing. So I'd like to know what the double is for a little bit because coming out of isolation or coming out of the global lockdown your doubles partner is usually Jordanne Whiley. So you wouldn't have seen each other or spoken to each other face to face for a very long time. Yeah. And then you come out and you win the US Open. How difficult was that straight after being apart for so long? Oh,
it was not really difficult because she had baby after we'll and to stop to play tennis for like one year and a half, I think. But when when she came back, we still very good relation and very good partner to play. We know how to how to move each other. And yeah, so I feel I feel like a little bit time to to to be better.
You just naturally clicked together. You don't need to spend hours talking about have you do this. I'll do this and kind of tactics for the day. It's just a natural.
Yeah, we already know each other. Yeah. I had my busti in lockdown, which is in which in April, and she she called me to say happy birthday and yeah. So yeah, we talk a lot.
Because you know that this year is the Japan UK season of culture. So this is a year to celebrate, you know, Japanese culture within the UK and you and Jordan Wiley are the perfect present this this whole process. Have you taught her any Japanese? Yes.
she is. In the middle of the the tournament. you're communicating in English.
Mostly? English. Yeah. She won't. She wants to speak Japanese for next year. She wants to learn Japanese more. So yeah, sometimes try to teach her.
Okay, Jordan, if you're listening to this podcast, we're happy to help any way we can.
So tell us a little bit more about your your relationship with Jordan how you became to be doubles partners. What made you and Jordan decide to play together?
Um Oh, I lost joy was started at Wimbledon in 2013. She She asked me to pray there. If If we pray together we can get wildcard for Wimbledon. And yeah, then I said yes. And yeah, of course we we knew each other but we we never talked before. And how hairstyle and look look at that time was little little bit scared me two years older than me, but it? Yeah. So I didn't know her personality. She's very nice person, but I didn't know that. And she had red hair and sometimes purple and green. So maybe she I don't know how but maybe seeds a little bit. scared. Yeah, but after we played Wimbledon together the the tournament one good. We both had the impression that if we practice a little bit more together, and prepare, we could win. So just after the tournament, we promise to play together again soon.
Amazing. So what about the other neat cultural sort of barriers between you and Jordan? Is there anything where you kind of go Oh, I really don't understand what Jordans doing. Is this a British thing? Yeah.
Yeah. We understand each other easily. We grew up on pletely different country and history. At the first time I just say, I just said yes. Because I know I didn't understand. But now if someone told to me, and if, if I understand, to try to explain, because I can understand how English so soon translate English to English and yeah, I didn't think we would be like this, this close relationship. But now we are liable of course but also best friend on an over the court. Fantastic. So
one one last question before we move on to the future of all your career. You know, your career Grand Slam wins, Masters wins tournaments, wins Paralympic medals, which is your career highlight.
Yeah, it's hard to choose because every moment and every match is important and memorable for me. But yeah, I wrote to bronze medal much at Paralympic Rio Paralympics. Because I lost in semi final. But I just I have to pray just next day to get bronze medal. Yeah, I had many feelings. Just two days, then. Yeah, I thought like, I'm gonna pray not to win. Just Just think to all all the supporters for me. Since I started to play tennis, then yeah, if I believe that, my boy, is everything. Go? Go in.
No. Oh, one more question. Actually. Sorry. One more question. So the Grand Slams are very different. You've got the surfaces are all very different. Which one is your favourite to play on?
Yeah, I like to play Paris. It's my frost singles title. And yeah, I like to play on Cray court as well. Yeah, but each each grandslam have good people and good, good court and everything. So I like yeah,
they're all good.
And of course, you get to travel to lots of different countries and eat lots of different food and speak lots of different languages. So, you know, sport for you is is is a way to experience the world. But also, you know, you're connecting different cultures and different people through your playing. So it's, it's, it's a great time to be a, you know, an international athlete. Obviously, the
games were postponed last year, which has given you another year to look forward to Tokyo 2020. What are your kind of hopes and goals for the games?
Oh, first of all, I hope that this, this situation will improve as soon as possible. And on top of that, I wish the how the parent picks up Park Stadium, and many spectators watch our performance. See in Japan unique.
This is the second time it will have Summer Paralympics after after 1964 parasport in Japan must have changed a lot since you started playing How is it? How it what's the profile of parasport in Japan like at the moment because my experience from travelling back to Japan? I was there with a year ago is the media are doing a great job of promoting What's your impression of how parasport has changed in Japan and how it is now.
Yeah, media is very big for us. And yes, since the Tokyo Paralympics was decided more media. And yeah, I think the environment surrounding passport and athlete has changed a lot. Like we we have we can do some show. I don't know how to say the Tai Chi Mita No, no,
I haven't have a go to tell you where you can go and try wheelchair tennis. Yeah, I think um, I think this in the Toyota Museum in Odaiba. They had like a hiking corner for some wheelchair sports or something like that where you can go and try areas wheelchair sports. Yeah, to introduce Japanese people to Okay,
you said the media is very important. Do you ever feel pressure from the media to? Do you ever? Yeah, you have to talk to people like us quite a lot, I imagine.
Yeah, a lot. Yeah, I think I we have to show the people how we walk. So yeah, it's my job as well. Not just play tennis. And of course, I have to have some title. Otherwise, people not what would really watch about us. But yeah, also important job for me.
Yeah, like, I mean, as you were saying earlier, about canadia century, I guess you have become like him an ambassador for the sport, people now look up to you, as someone to go I want to be just like, you know, you essentially I want to be just like her. How does that feel?
Yeah, it's very honoured to be like that. And yeah, but I think, especially for junior players feel more close. Because we already have like, single clear, like, legend prayer. So I'm a little bit close to them. Also age but feeling close, then they can set up like, fast, fast time I want to be like me, then I want to be like single, they can set up like this. So yeah, I want to be middle.
I like you have more Grand Slam titles, and I have fingers and you don't consider yourself a legend. That's
wonderful. Do we can we move to the final questions like
yeah, let's move on to the final questions. The fund is open fun, really. But
these are absolutely more. These are the kind of lighter? Either question. So, um, we have four questions we always ask our guests. So Mike has to ask one of these questions. So I'm going to ask the very first one. Is there a Japanese phrase or word that you really like? You boom. Your incident kotoba or something? You know, a word that you you think? sums up? Coming to you sent you? Any hongo demo? Can Coco demo? Japanese Japanese, please? Yeah. Although if you want to use it for if you got a friend.
Yeah, I tried to keep smiling. Even it's during the month. So ego is important. What for me? Yeah, I tried to enjoy. Or, or the moment like, if I yeah, like even if I lost the maths or Yeah. lost the point during the game. I tried to keep smiling. And then it's going to be going to be Yeah, I wish
so wonderful. Can we use that as the title of the podcast? It's my ego they
say the next question you'd like to ask is can you recommend somewhere for us to visit in Japan one city or place that you think everybody should go when they visit Japan?
I'm I'm not really busy in Japan, because half in half a year I go to other countries so I've not stayed a long time but yeah, the people should come to Chicago not takoyaki
so she'll go prefecture perfect and other than eating Can you think of one other activity something that our listeners must do if they visit Hugo? prefecture?
Yeah, you can see cherry blossom tree as well in the cache in in my city. Big. We have big big park with castle and yeah, there are many, many trees
eat me tight.
And the last question, my favourite question. I think I know the answer already. But can you recommend something for us to eat in Japan something we have To eat when we go to Japan.
Yeah, I think I think the more delicious hood where I live than Tokyo and yeah, many people prefer sushi and sashimi when they come to Japan. But yeah, we have their own flavours and way of eating depending on the region for fish or meat. So if you can stay for longer, you should try each place. Yeah, I would like you to go to various legions.
And if you're in in Hugo, we should try our best Yaki kushiyaki. So we should all try Akashi Yaki when we go to.
wonderful, fantastic, you've been absolutely wonderful guests. And as always, when Mike and I set out to do an interview, we suddenly discover so much more about the person than we imagined. And you know, it's been absolutely amazing talking to you. Do you have one final message for our listeners?
Yes, I really want to have Tokyo Olympics next year. And yeah, I hope the world is getting better soon. So I wish you you can you could come to Japan to to see my match or other place like Wimbledon.
We will be there. We will be there. Definitely. I have tickets for the Tokyo Paralympics. I also want to make sure that and Mike and we look forward to supporting you on your journey to Tokyo 2021 and beyond.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. It's been amazing. Thank you.
As always, I must say
thank you for listening to Japan support stories. You were such a friendly and infectiously happy guest to interview and all and I just want to thank her one more time for finding some time for us in her busy schedule. We're looking forward to seeing it takes the court in Tokyo and continuing to watch her long career afterwards. If you enjoyed hearing about Paralympic sports, why not check out our other episodes with Greg Paralympians. We have mitzner gosei the saint of the ice hockey goal, Kaz Walton, a competitor at the 1964 Tokyo games. If you enjoyed listening to this, please tell all your friends greet us in your podcast platform and subscribe to us to hear all of our episodes as soon as they're released. If you want to get in contact with us, you can find us on Twitter at j s stories. Next week, we're going football crazy and finding out the best parts of Japanese football from Lost in football founder Chris how and see you in two weeks.