Former doubles world No. 1 and four-time Grand Slam champion Ai Sugiyama is dreaming big after leading Japan to six straight wins since assuming captaincy of the women’s national tennis team in January.
Japan edged Colombia 3-2 on Nov. 11 in the Billie Jean King Cup playoff to earn a place in next year’s qualifying round of the premier women’s international team tennis competition.
Japan women’s tennis team head coach Ai Sugiyama (3rd from R) and players including Shuko Aoyama (2nd from L) and Nao Hibino (3rd from L) celebrate after beating Colombia in the Billie Jean King Cup playoff at Ariake Colosseum on Nov. 11, 2023. (Kyodo)
The result followed wins over South Korea, Thailand, Uzbekistan, India and China during Asia/Oceania regional pool play in April.
“Japanese tennis is definitely heading in the right direction,” said the 48-year-old Sugiyama, who contested 62 straight Grand Slam tournaments as a player.
She won three women’s doubles Grand Slam titles — at the 2000 U.S. Open, as well as at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2003 — alongside one mixed doubles crown at the 1999 U.S. Open.
Japan’s Ai Sugiyama (L) and Belgium’s Kim Clijsters lift trophies after winning the women’s doubles tournament at the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London in July 2003. (Kyodo)
The Billie Jean King Cup, formerly called the Federation Cup, has a special place in the heart of the former singles world No. 8, who played on the 1996 Japan team that reached the last four — the country’s best finish to date.
Facing Germany, three-time Grand Slam singles semifinalist Kimiko Date saw off icon Steffi Graf 7-6(7), 3-6, 12-10 in a classic Match 3 before Sugiyama and Kyoko Nagatsuka beat Graf and Anke Huber in the deciding match in doubles 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 at Ariake Colosseum.
“That (last-eight clash) is etched in my memory,” said Sugiyama, who retired in 2009. “That sense of togetherness and coherence is something you cannot get at individual events.”
The current crop of Japanese players values her vast international experience. “She was a top player, and that makes her advice so much more persuasive,” said doubles player Shuko Aoyama.
Singles player Nao Hibino said she appreciated Sugiyama for keeping close contact with each team member while they toured around the globe.
“She cares about us, even if we are far away, and gives us calls when we’re feeling down. The sense of belonging to a team is strong,” she said.
Sugiyama will begin 2024 by heading to the Australian Open in January to cast her eyes over the Japanese hopefuls as she looks to catapult her country back to where it once was, or even higher.
“We’re aiming for the very top,” Sugiyama said. “The players have the potential.”
Japan women’s tennis team head coach Ai Sugiyama (R) and players including Shuko Aoyama (L) and Nao Hibino (2nd from R) pose for a photo ahead of the Billie Jean King Cup playoff against Colombia at Ariake Colosseum on Nov. 9, 2023. (Kyodo)