On Friday, the most dominant athlete in the world will take the court at Wimbledon — and you’ve probably never heard of her.
Esther Vergeer, a 29-year-old Dutch wheelchair tennis player, has not lost a singles match since January 2003. That’s 418 straight victories and 107 consecutive titles over the course of eight years.
“Um, I’ve never felt comfortable calling myself the best or the most dominant athlete,” an amiable Vergeer told NewsFeed after a warm-up hit in London on Thursday. “But I suppose I’ve stopped worrying about my record because it does seem pretty unlikely that anyone will match it, at least in the foreseeable future.”
(LIST: 30 Legends of Women’s Tennis)
Like most wheelchair athletes, Vergeer’s triumphs were born of a tragedy no one would wish upon a child. When Vergeer was eight years old, she underwent a risky surgical procedure to correct a spinal defect. The surgery saved her life, but left her paralyzed. The Dutch government give all such patients a sports wheelchair as part of their rehabilitation, which explains in part why Holland dominates the sport; in the Wimbledon women’s doubles this weekend, 5 of the 8 competitors are from the Netherlands. Vergeer’s first sport was basketball — and she was good enough to be considered for the national team. But as a teenager she began to focus more on tennis, and was soon a force to be reckoned with.
“I think basketball helped my mobility, which is hugely important for wheelchair tennis,” Vergeer says of her chosen sport, which is played with the same rules as able-bodied tennis except the ball is allowed to bounce twice. “It’s not just moving to the ball, but positioning the chair so that you can generate power with your strokes.”
What makes Vergeer’s winning streak even more remarkable is that many of her matches have been tight, closely-contested affairs. That speaks to Vergeer’s greatest talent, and an intangible quality shared by all champion athletes: her mental strength. Sharon Walraven, her Dutch doubles partner at Wimbledon — the tournament doesn’t host a singles event because grass is considered too difficult a surface to maneuver a chair over — remembers many close matches against Vergeer in which “I felt as if we played very close, very tight, but then at the end you look at the score and realize you’ve just lost very badly. She has the remarkable calmness and mental focus that puts her at a different level than the rest of us.”
An individual, ranking-based sport such as tennis presents the world’s best with a dilemma, however: how to find motivation after he or she has reached the summit. Several years ago, Vergeer says, her dominance provoked a crisis of sorts: “I realized that I was playing not to lose, rather than to win.” So with the help of a sports psychologist, she tried to change her mind frame, and pursue perfection for its own sake. “The key is to always feel as if you are improving and getting better. For me in recent years that has meant improving my fitness and particularly my core strength. I have a weak lower back, which is related to my disability, so that’s particularly important.” She also hired a coach, Sven Groeneveld, who has worked with some of the top able-bodied players, including current world number 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
The pursuit of perfection, however, paradoxically requires a career spent obsessing over one’s faults. And Vergeer admits that “sometimes it’s tiring always trying to improve.” She says that she considered retirement after she won the Beijing Paralympics and, though she will continue to the 2012 Paralympics in London, she says she’s not sure “how much more time I can spend in the tunnel of obsession” required of athletes. She already has begun to imagine a life for herself off the court; she runs a foundation in Holland that works to involve disabled children in sports, and is interested in a career in sports marketing, as well as one day raising a family. She’s also helping to design a new, improved wheelchair that she hopes will change the game much as graphite racquets did for able-bodied pros twenty years ago. Speaking to her about these extracurricular activities, you can feel her relentless curiosity and drive starting to search for a new focus.
Her doubles partner and sometime singles rival Walraven has mixed feelings about Vergeer’s potential departure. “People only think of her when they think of the sport, but there are other professionals working hard and playing very well, so I’m not sure if it’s good for the sport to have someone so dominant,” she says. “But at the same time she’s such a great ambassador for the game, and such a wonderful person, so you want her around as long as possible.”
Vergeer’s favorite able-bodied tennis player is Roger Federer, who in his pomp also ruled over his sport. But not even Federer could come close to matching Vergeer’s 8-year winning streak.