Esther Vergeer: Tennis’s best keeps getting better

Esther Vergeer has held sway over wheelchair tennis like few others could imagine. Marianne Bevis asks how she does it

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
esther vergeer
Esther Vergeer has five Olympic gold medals Photo: Getty Images for Laureus

esther vergeer

It was an understandable question, given the record of this particular woman. How does an athlete who has dominated her field for more than a decade remain so motivated?

For Esther Vergeer has held sway over her sport—wheelchair tennis—like few others could imagine.

She is undefeated in singles since January 2003, a current unbroken streak of 444 matches.

She has five Olympic golds—three in singles, two in doubles—and a silver, too.

She has won every singles Grand Slam she has entered since 2002—a total of 20—and all but one of her 21 doubles tournaments: she was a finalist in her one loss.

She has won the women’s Masters title every year since 1998: 14 straight titles.

And she has been world No1 since 1999, hitting the top at 18 and still at the top aged 30.

In short, when she arrived in London, nominated for a sixth time in the Laureus World Sports Awards, Vergeer was the reigning singles wheelchair champion in the Olympics, the Masters and all the Grand Slams—and, for good measure, the reigning doubles champion in all the Slams and the Masters too.

Is it any wonder that the tennis name on everyone’s lips in 2011, Novak Djokovic, fired off an excited Tweet from the Laureus red carpet: “Me and one of the women in tennis I admire the most, Esther Vergeer.”

So how does she remain motivated? The answer had distinct echoes of that other enduring 30-year-old tennis champion, Roger Federer, when asked a similar question after winning his 70th title in London a few months back: “I love this game more than anybody. It’s a lot of sacrifice, it’s a lot of effort, but I do enjoy that.”

Vergeer, currently with 156 singles titles, is just as passionate about tennis.

“My main motivation is the inner game: I just love the sport, I love the training, but then also the way I see that I can improve in so many aspects still.

“Then there’s the motivation of the Olympics: You have to set certain goals, and this year for sure I’ve set my goal—my mind—on the Olympics.”

And just as Federer continues to develop his game in order to stay at the top, so does Vergeer. Her opponents may want to avert their eyes from her next assertion.

“I do feel that I improve each year. I add stuff, I take away stuff. Working with my team, it helps me to see things I wouldn’t be able to see if it was just myself, but having a physical trainer, a nutritionist, a mobility person—it makes me see that changing a small thing can have a big effect on court.

“Of course my main competitive edge is on the court, and I do still get a lot of tactical improvement. But then also there is mental training and improvement, the physical improvement, the equipment improvement, my chair, the materials. I see so many improvements on so many levels that there’s still much to learn.”

It seems impertinent, in the face of her continued dominance and improvement, to raise the question of her age—but the parallels with Federer kept coming so the question was posed: Has she begun to notice the physical impact of so many years on the tour?

“Yes, I do notice the difference from a couple of years ago, but also during matches you feel more tired, feel more little pains. So I do notice getting a little bit older, but I also know that whenever you train hard enough and you work hard enough on your physical abilities, you can still cope with a lot of pressure.”

It was the answer of a woman both confident in her talent and comfortable in her skin. She talked of the cause of her disability—and her reaction to it—with a similar matter-of-fact ease that felt more like a conversation than an interview.

Vergeer was only eight when an operation to repair a birth defect around her spinal cord left her paralysed.

“At the beginning, I didn’t realise I’d be paralysed the rest of my life. I was little and in pain and in hospital and all those things together made me think that when I got home and I didn’t have pain any more, I would be able to walk again. But when I got back home, had to go back to school, play with my friends, it dawned on me it would be the rest of my life.

“In the beginning it’s hard, of course, everything I did I compared with before: It was easier when I could walk, it was more fun when I could walk, so it was difficult. I guess sports, and the people around me, made me realise that the world doesn’t end. Now I can do all the things that other 30-year-olds do so I don’t see myself as a disabled.”

She initially played wheelchair basketball as well as tennis and was a member of the Dutch team that won the European championship in 1997. But she eventually chose to concentrate on tennis and played her first international tournament in 1996. Two years later, at 17, she turned full-time and won her first big tournament, the Masters.

More than 13 years on and Vergeer has just taken her ninth Australian singles title, winning the final 6-0, 6-0 in 47 minutes.

Yet after this imposing victory, she admitted: “I’ve already been telling myself I can lose any minute now because I know that some girls are a better player than me, maybe have better tennis skills than me, maybe have a better disability than me, maybe can put more pressure on the ball, but maybe don’t have the mental toughness or the experience.”

Add to that mental toughness her love of tennis, of competition, of winning—and her continued physical development with coach Sven Groeneveld—and talk of a change of career is clearly premature. She does, though, already have other irons in her fire. She supplements her modest income from prize money with public speaking and she has her own charitable foundation, which she sees as a perfect fit with her Laureus connections.

Talking at the ‘Sport for Good Festival’ at Millwall FC on the morning of the Awards ceremony, she enthused about what she saw.

“I have my own foundation back home to help little kids with disabilities to get involved in sports. So I very much link myself to Laureus. You look at the kids and they have so much fun, they can grow up together, they can learn from each other, they can have a positive atmosphere here, so I do very much link myself with a project like this, something I can be involved in, and more involved maybe when I retire.”

How, then, does she compare her recognition by the Laureus Academy with her multitude of Grand Slams?

“Well it’s totally different. Being nominated for a Laureus is special because it’s picked by the people here, the Academy members, athletes from all disciplines and all generations. People who know what it is and what you have to do for it. It feels like a great honour. And even though I’ve won it twice, I still get goose-bumps thinking about it.”

A few hours later, Vergeer was beaten to what would have been a third Laureus title by sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Djokovic took the big prize and the big plaudits as Sportsman of the Year—a just reward for one of the finest years in men’s tennis. Minutes before, however, it was of the remarkable Esther that he Tweeted the world.

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