Shingo Kunieda celebrates after winning an Olympic gold medal at his place of birth, Tokyo ©Getty Images

Former wheelchair tennis champion Shingo Kunieda of Japan, who retired in January, spoke on his career experiences and his future after he was awarded the People's Honour by the Japanese Prime Minister following an influential career.

The four-time Paralympic gold medallist in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2021, received the award last week for his outstanding career, one which saw him finish top of the world rankings when he decided to call it quits.

He became the first Para athlete to receive this major honour that was established in 1977.

"This is a testament to the greater recognition the Paralympics now has," said Kunieda during the ceremony of the People's Honour award, according to Kyodo News.

"I would really appreciate it if this helped to create a more hospitable environment for the sport."

The 39-year-old began using a wheelchair when he was nine after being diagnosed with a spinal tumour.

His first major victory came at Athens 2004, where he teamed up with Satoshi Saida to triumph in the men's doubles competition.

Following that, he went on to win the singles title at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, solidifying himself as one of the greats in the sport.

He missed a chance to three-peat after he lost in the quarter-final at Rio 2016 as he was just recovering from an elbow surgery four months earlier.

However, his greatness was portrayed once again as he claimed the title on home soil at Tokyo 2020, defeating Tom Egberink of the Netherlands 6-1, 6-2 in the final. 

He described it as his "ultimate dream" as he awaited the opportunity to represent his country in his homeland, after Japan won the bid to stage the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in 2013.

"As a player, I won every title at the Paralympics and Grand Slam tournaments," said Kunieda.

"I had a career during which I can say, with confidence from the bottom of my heart, I was able to accomplish everything I wanted to do."

Besides tennis, Kunieda has a big passion for basketball.

The 50-time Grand Slam winner had hopes of becoming a wheelchair basketball player, but could not find a club near him, which led to his mother taking an 11-year-old Shingo to a tennis club instead, creating one of the world's best in the field.

"My mother forced me to go to the tennis club," Kunieda said.

"When I went to the place for wheelchair tennis, I saw that the rallies were more intense than I thought and my first impression of wheelchair tennis was that I wanted to try it.

"For the first two or three years, I played once or twice a week as a hobby and I really liked that I could see how much I improved every week.

"Tennis was my mother’s hobby and I wouldn’t have started tennis if it wasn’t for her. 

"I’m grateful to her."

He has been playing basketball during his post-retirement alongside members of the Japanese national team, while developing an interest in swimming.

He had to relearn swimming from scratch as he enjoyed the sport prior to using a wheelchair, nearly drowning during training sessions.

Kunieda claims that he is now able to swim 25 metres.

“When I played tennis, I didn’t do any other sports due to the risk of getting injured," said Kunieda.

"But I’ve always loved basketball and I can’t swim. 

Shingo Kunieda finished his career top of the world wheelchair tennis rankings ©Getty Images
Shingo Kunieda finished his career top of the world wheelchair tennis rankings ©Getty Images

"So even before I retired, I thought about taking on new challenges.

"I want to do things that I’m really interested in because that becomes a source of inspiration. 

"I want to have fun in life.

"I don’t know how to swim anymore. 

"Right now, I’m learning how to breathe and I’m thinking how difficult it is to move in the water.

"I’m really good on land, but I’m facing this huge challenge in the water. 

"I end up drinking so much water in the pool, and that’s how bad I am at swimming.

"I have a simple goal. 

"I want to be able to swim the front crawl or the breaststroke cleanly." 

Kunieda shrugged off any rumours that he might compete in a sixth Paralympic Games, but has said that he wants to "enjoy sports with a light heart, the same way people play sports as a hobby."