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Playing by ear: Blind tennis, the smash from Japan
How the sport’s creator set the ball rolling and touched lives worldwide
For Miyoshi Takei, being blind turned out to be just a minor obstacle when it came to playing tennis. In fact, it’s what impelled him to try in the first place.
"I wanted to hit a ball that was flying through space as hard as I could, even though I couldn’t see it," he once said. If only there was some way he could hear it.
Encouraged by his high school teacher, and after much trial and error, he created a spongy, lightweight ball that rattles so players can track it with their ears. A new sport was born -- blind tennis.
The first national blind tennis championships took place in Japan in the fall of 1990, and there are now hundreds of players in Japan as well as some in the countries he visited to introduce the sport: Britain, Korea, China, Taiwan and, recently, the United States, Russia and Australia.
Takei won many national titles but did not compete in this year’s 22nd annual Blind Tennis Open held in Tokorozawa, Saitama on November 20.
Though it was his blindness that inspired him to push past the sight barrier of the game, which unlike many other sports had not been adapted for the visually impaired because it was thought to be impossible, it was also blindness that led to his undoing.
On the afternoon of January 16, 2011, returning home with his wife, who is also blind, he fell in front of an oncoming train on the Yamanote line in Tokyo. He was 42 years old.
Now his legacy lives on, and his close friend Ayako Matsui, who heads the Asia Conference for the Promotion of Blind Tennis and the Japan Blind Tennis Federation, is forging ahead to realize Takei’s dream to grow the sport and ultimately get it into the Paralympic Games.
“Mr. Takei’s dream is now my dream, and I’m honored to share it,” Matsui told me. Thanks to her tireless effort and help from the sponsors NEC, Kao Corporation and Kao Heart Pocket Club, this could really happen someday.
Matsui, who is also a teacher of physically disabled children, says she started teaching tennis to kids who are visually impaired because it promotes free movement, independence, exercise and friendship, not to mention the sheer fun of running around and whacking a ball.
Besides Japan, the other big scene is in the United Kingdom, where Takei and Matsui introduced the sport four years ago.
“It’s moved in leaps and bounds over the past year here,” says David Knipe, a British blind tennis coach at Tennis Foundation in London who received training from Takei on his visit to Japan last year. “And they’ve grown it in such a way that it’s taken off massively in Japan.”
What they really need to do now, he says, is further refine the ball so it has a more even bounce and is more durable and cheaper. (It costs nearly ¥1,000.) Other matters, like the court and rules, are still being ironed out before setting up a universal standard.
Typically, it’s played with a junior-sized racket on a badminton court with string taped to the lines for tactile positioning. Legally blind players, who wear eye masks to level the playing field, are allowed to hit the ball on three bounces, while those who are partially sighted have to do it on one or two, depending on how much they can see.
In Japan’s disabled community and beyond, Takei is a role model for his refusal to accept that being blind was reason enough not to play tennis.
He visited schools for the disabled and the able-bodied alike to demonstrate the sport and spread his message that having a disability is all the more reason to shoot for the stars.
In his vision, the game could be a unifying force that would bring everyone together -- the blind, the deaf, the young and old, even different nationalities and ethnicities.
In his short heroic life, Takei showed that the blind can in fact lead the blind toward an expanded sense of what they can do. He did this by redrawing the boundary lines between the impossible and the possible.
Upcoming blind and visually impaired tennis events
November 27: The 16th Asukamu Blind Tennis Tournament, Aichi Aseiko Kosei-nenkin Taiikukan (Asukamu), 1 Wanowari Arao-cho, Tokai, Aichi, +81 (0) 52 601 7211.
December 4: The 18th Iwaki Sun Abilities Blind Tennis Tournament, Iwaki Sun Abilities, 5-1 Kamiawagai, Yumotomati Joban, Iwaki, Fukushima. +81 (0) 24 643 7791.