2024 Australian Open – Rei Sakamoto the Samurai

By Vanessa Taylor

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He’s only 17 and plays in the Juniors, but Rei Sakamoto already has his own signature celebration after a victory.

Ben Shelton hangs up the phone, Novak Djokovic throws his heart to each side of the crowd, the Bryan Brothers bumped chests, which has since been copied by several current doubles teams…

Sakamoto kneels on the court and draws an imaginary sword (his tennis racquet) from its sheath then replaces it. The gesture represents a samurai, and he has been performing it for the last six months.

Rei Sakamoto performs his post-match samurai celebration.
Image: Nine Media/Tennis Australia

The young Japanese player stands at 193 cms tall and dominated the AGL Loy Yang Traralgon International, a warm-up event for the Australian Open Juniors tournament.

He followed in the footsteps of Roger Federer, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Alexander Zverev, who all played in Traralgon.

To become the 2024 champion, 4th seed Sakamoto defeated Norwegian Nicolai Budkov Kjaer, the 2nd seed, 6-4 6-1.

Rei Sakamoto and Emerson Jones, winners of the singles titles in Traralgon. Photo: Traralgon Tennis Association

Ranked No. 7 in world Juniors, Sakamoto was also seeded 4 in Melbourne.

He dropped only one set in the first four rounds, to Australian Pavle Marinkov, though he won the next two sets 6-0 6-1.

In the semi final, he faced his Traralgon rival Nicolai Budkov Kjaer and this time defeated him 6-2 6-4.

The Boys’ final was something else. It was a close and fluctuating match that ran for 131 minutes and featured a combined total of 81 winners.

Sakamoto met unseeded Czech Jan Kumstat, who took the first game with a serve of 204 kms.

Jan Kumstat in the Junior Boys Final. Photo: AP

Both boys regularly served over 200 kms. Serving at 1-2, Sakamoto rocked the speed gun to 211 kms. Unfortunately for him, the rest of that game was a disaster. Three unforced errors and a double fault granted Kumstat a break point which he seized when a Sakamoto shot sailed long.

The Czech maintained the break with 10 aces for the set, including one on second serve. Along with speed, his serving utilised variety in its placement.

He took the set in 30 minutes for 6-3.

Rei Sakamoto wearing his Akubra hat at a press conference.
Photo: Tennis Australia/George Sal

Sakamoto regrouped for the next set. He played with greater control and so reduced errors. His serve also improved to the extent that in the first seven games of the set, he won 100% of points on his second serve.

Several deft volleys showed Kumstat was not just a power player. After neither player managed to get a break point in the set, it was his 20th ace that earned him a tiebreak.

This time it was Kumstat’s turn to make the errors, while his opponent revealed his backhand volley and groundstroke could be just as valuable as his powerful forehand. The second set result was 7-6(2) to the Japanese.

Rei Sakamoto at his press conference. Photo: Tennis Australia/George Sal

Between the sets, he sat with an ice pack on the back of his neck even though it was just 23°C.

At 1-1 in the final set, Sakamoto went to 30-0 on Kumstat’s serve by patiently waiting for the right shot, and stretched to 40-0 through the gift of a double fault. He broke with a sharp forehand pass down the line.

Kumstat’s coach called out to him, “Restart, restart!” And he did. He broke straight back then took the lead with great serving, 3-2.

At 4-4, the next game had four deuces until a Sakamoto error allowed Kumstat to hold. But Sakamoto soon smashed his way to 5-5. The following game produced five deuces before Kumstat double faulted to go down 5-6.

Rei Sakamoto and the relief of winning. Photo: Tennis Australia/Hamish Blair

Serving for the title, Sakamoto accrued three winners for 40-0 and became champion when Kumstat hit out and gave him the game to love. He had served a total of 25 aces to 6 but Sakamoto had first-served at 71% and won 80% of those points.

After his samurai gesture, and shaking hands with Kumstat, the winner lay down on the court. When he rose, his coach threw him the Akubra hat he won in Traralgon to wear. For the trophy presentation he changed back to the more traditional tennis headwear, a back-to-front baseball cap.

He started his speech with “G’day, mate!” then spoke in Japanese but finished with a “Yep”.

Title photo of Rei Sakamoto by Tennis Australia/ Josh Chadwick

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