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Blind Tennis Is Going From Strength to Strength Despite the Death of its Creator

Its founder died in a tragic accident, but blind tennis continues to build momentum as it targets inclusion at the Paralympics.
10 April 2015, 4:50pm

Miyoshi Takei lost his life at a Tokyo train station on January 16th 2011. His death was a tragic accident: the 42-year-old had been blind since infancy and fell in front of an oncoming train. It prompted calls for the installation of safety barriers and improved Braille navigation tiles on Japan's station platforms in order to prevent further needless deaths.

Any such improvements would add a positive legacy to an otherwise terrible set of events. But, as the inventor and most significant figure in the sport of blind tennis, Miyoshi had already left a lasting mark on the world. Four years on, his creation is going from strength to strength.

As a teenager, Miyoshi played sports with his three brothers and harboured dreams of playing tennis. But, unlike a number of other sports – notably football and athletics – there was no established variant for the blind.

In some respects this is not surprising. Perhaps more than any other sport, tennis relies on vision and inch-perfect positioning. If you miss the ball, play immediately stops; if this happens regularly the game could soon become very frustrating.

But the undaunted Miyoshi decided to develop the sport himself and, after years of trial and error, came up with a ball tailored for the visually impaired. Spongy and lightweight, it contains a ping-pong ball for the blind that makes a clear sound, allowing players to track its movement across the court. Depending on their level of visual impairment, they are allowed up to three bounces of the ball as opposed to the one mandated in standard tennis, while volleys are banned and the net is a little lower. Otherwise the rules are the same.

Miyoshi considered this lack of differences to be key to the sport's success, and insisted on minimal assistance for players. "We have to take responsibility both for success and failure," he said at a lecture on the sport in 2007, stressing the importance of independence for the visually impaired in both sport and everyday life.

Using an early prototype ball, Miyoshi played his first game against a PE teacher at the school for the blind he attended. By 1990, the first ever tennis tournament for the visually impaired took place in Japan. As the sport's creator, Miyoshi dominated on the court, winning 16 national championships. Today, his brainchild has spread across the globe, with blind tennis – also known as sound ball – played in Britain, the United States, and across Asia.

London-based Metro Blind Sport began running tennis session in 2007 following a demonstration by Japanese players. They now offer regular practices and an annual national tournament for adults and juniors.

Miyoshi had hoped that blind tennis would eventually be included in the Paralympics. Despite his death, this appears increasingly close to becoming reality. The newly-formed Blind Tennis Association is aiming to showcase the sport at the Tokyo games in 2020, an apt location given its links to Japan. After this it could become a demonstration sport four years later and then gain full Paralympic status by 2032. From the first game between Miyoshi and his PE teacher, this would represent an incredible journey.

"I am glad that I never gave up on my dream to play tennis," he said in his 2007 lecture. "If you make an effort, you might make impossible things possible."

Four years after his death, the game Miyoshi developed continues to thrive. That is the most fitting legacy for a man who refused to let anything stand in the way of his dreams.