Forget Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Forget Barcelona. Forget the All Blacks. If you are looking for the most dominant force in sport, then look no further. Esther Vergeer has been the queen of wheelchair tennis for more than a decade, has not been beaten in singles since 2003 and her victory at the Australian Open last month took her winning streak to a frankly ridiculous 444 matches. Jahangir Khan once won 555 straight matches in squash but, for this generation, Vergeer is top of the pile.
At 30, just how long the Dutchwoman can go on doing it remains to be seen. She will bid for a fourth Paralympic singles gold medal in London this summer but the endless grind of the tour means that she will inevitably call it a day, probably sooner rather than later.
In an exclusive interview with The Tennis Space, Vergeer said she has a plan. “Maybe I am dreaming but whenever I am done playing tennis in a competitive way, I am thinking that I’ll just travel around the world and make a battle of the sexes,” she grinned. “I’ll just challenge all the guys to play against me and see if they can beat me.”
Certainly none of the women are coming close. Under the guidance of Sven Groenveld, the coach who has worked with numerous top players including Andy Murray, Caroline Wozniacki and Greg Rusedski, Vergeer trains with the men’s number one Maikel Scheffers and holds her own.
“When I play a training match against Maikel, I do sometimes win a tiebreaker or a couple of games,” she said. “It hardly ever happens that I win a whole match but I think if I played more against guys, my level will only be better. It would be a challenge (to play regular matches against men) but I don’t know if it’s possible – I don’t think it’s allowed.
“When I train with men, they’re faster, they’re stronger, they’re quicker and so it raises my level a lot. I think that’s what makes a difference. For the other girls it should be an easy way to go – to train with men – I don’t know if they do it or not, but it should be a good way.”
When she was eight, Vergeer had surgery to correct a spinal defect. The operation worked but she was left with paraplegia. The Dutch government gave her a free sports wheelchair and she was encouraged to play basketball, volleyball and table tennis as part of her rehabilitation.
But it was soon clear that she excelled at tennis and she has become a true star, on and off the court. She practised with Nadal at the French Open and men’s world number one Djokovic described her this week as “one of the women I admire the most”. She even posed naked for ESPN Magazine’s 2010 ‘Body Issue’.
So what drives her on? Doesn’t winning grand slam finals get a bit dull? “Winning doesn’t get boring, it really doesn’t,” she said. “When you train at home and you put it into matches, (especially) at the grand slams, it just gives you an amazing feeling – that’s why I want to continue playing.”
But surely she craves competition? “I know how you can beat me,” she laughed. “I have a plan (to beat) myself. Physically they can do it, but sometimes they are not mentally stable enough to make it work.
“I see those girls on the training court and I’ll talk to them about how they train. They are so close to beating me. But there is still this small thing – the mental side is making the difference still. They have the tennis skills, but (it’s about) being calm, making the right plans and making the right decisions.
“It’s great to work with a coach who comes from able-bodied tennis, who has a lot of experience. He teaches me amazing stuff, on and off the court, how your attitude should be, how your approach should be to matches, to training, to other people, to media. I think I learned so much from that that my confidence is so big, on and off the court, that it gives me a lot of calm.
“I have tennis training, I have physical training, I do a lot of mobility training in my chair; I do a lot of fitness training for my upper body so I think I am maybe a little stronger than the average girl. I hit a little harder than the average girl and so I think all those things together maybe make me faster and stronger on the court.”
Faster, higher, stronger; that’s the Olympic motto. This summer, Vergeer will be trying to win a fourth Paralympic singles gold. Another victory, she said, would be “an amazing feeling” and beyond that, who knows?
“For me the most important motivation to go on is that I still see the improvements that I am making,” she said. “Not only about tennis, but also about the mental improvement, the physical improvement, the equipment and chair improvement there is going on. There is still so much to gain so that’s what keeps me motivated.”
Esther Vergeer was speaking at The Laureus Sports Awards in London