Overcoming Adversity, Again: Houdet wins first Slam
In French, it sounds a lot easier: tennis en fauteuil, or, literally, ‘armchair tennis’. There is, however, nothing leisurely about wheelchair tennis.
Last Friday’s French Open final between France's Stéphane Houdet and Shingo Kunieda of Japan provided suspense, high-quality play, and, ultimately, inspiration. The Frenchman started off strong behind a barrage of powerful groundstrokes, leaving few points to his beleaguered opponent. Kunieda called upon his stoicism, however—and major final experience—to level the match in a second set that was a mirror image of the first. More errors came off the players' backhand sides, which is understandable as wheelchair tennis players do not tend to hit a typical topspin backhand, but rather keep their forehand grip and hit the backhand with the same face of the racquet. The lack of leverage increases the difficulty of the shot. Perhaps the most important aspect of wheelchair tennis is maneuvering: Not only getting to the ball, but also not running into it.
Houdet came into the match with a two-match winning streak over Kunieda, but the native of Saint Nazaire had reason to be worried. In his five Grand Slam final appearances, Houdet had failed to win a single time, and he was up against a 13-time Grand Slam champion who is 13 years his junior. Houdet of course benefited from the crowd’s support, but also from an unlikely source: A local middle school. Earlier in the week, roughly 30 students from Condorcet Middle School, bedecked in homemade t-shirts inscribed with words of encouragement, made the trip to Roland Garros to support their hero. Back in February, Houdet was invited by the school’s teachers to demonstrate wheelchair tennis and pass around the gold medal he picked up in the doubles competition in Beijing. Awestruck, the students started a blog and are even planning to support him during the London games.
With each player holding his nerve and serve, a final-set tiebreaker was inevitable. After a roar of applause to begin the session, Kuneida jumped out to a 5-1 lead on the back of strong serves that went without a reply. Little did he know he would win only one other point.
Houdet found his serve just in time, hitting two aces to work his way back to 5-4. The four-time French Open champ served for the title, winning the first service point for 6-4. On Kunieda's first championship point, a muscular rally from the baseline ensued. Houdet won that duel of big groundies, then served yet another ace, placing the ball in the exact same spot as three points before, with a slice down the T in the ad court. With the match completely even, Houdet then inched ahead to earn his first championship point. When Kuneida served up a double fault to conclude the 6-2, 2-6, 7-6 (6) match, it set off a celebration of unbridled joy, reminiscent of Rafael Nadal's reaction to Novak Djokovic's tournament-ending double-fault.
With his hands blackened from maneuvering the wheelchair, Kuneida graciously accepted defeat shaking Houdet’s gloved hand.
“What’s happened to me is crazy,” Houdet said in his on-court speech. And with his family and friends in attendance, his relief was palpable. Since turning pro four years ago, Houdet, the tournament's No. 2 seed, had finally notched his maiden Grand Slam victory.
Watching wheelchair tennis is a poignant reminder of what makes up a good tennis match, namely: Quality competition, tension and sportsmanship. The 2012 French Open wheelchair final provided all three, in spades.