Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wonder Woman on Wheels

by Ruchi Junnarkar

I’d been noticing Esther Vergeer’s name for some time before I actually began to register the story behind that name. When I did read about her, I was surprised how I had no idea about the things she had achieved despite being such a passionate follower of the sport. After all, it’s not every day one sees the kind of numbers that she has managed to rack up. 429 consecutive wins. 107 consecutive titles. Unbeaten since January 2003. 29 Grand Slams. 21 year-end Championships. Yes, Esther Vergeer is unquestionably the best wheelchair tennis player ever. But her incredible achievements make her one of the greatest athletes, disabled or able-bodied, to have played any sport, ever. And yet, not too many have heard of her.

The 30-year old Dutchwoman Vergeer had to undergo a risky surgical procedure to correct a fatal spinal defect when she was eight years old. It was a successful surgery, in that it saved her life. But it left her paralyzed. In the course of her rehabilitation, Vergeer took up wheelchair sports. After successfully playing basketball for a while, she took up tennis, in which she continues to set new records day after day.

As I began to read more about this incredible personality, I realised how these unprecedented achievements are often discounted as they fall into the ‘disabled’ category. And yet, what Vergeer has achieved deserves to be mentioned alongside the greatest achievements of any dominant sportsperson in the history of sport. As sports writer Tom Lamont puts it, “Rocky Marciano won 49 heavyweight boxing bouts in a row before retiring in 1955. Arsenal went the same number of Premier League games unbeaten half a century later. Rafael Nadal's 81-match winning streak on clay ended last year. Ed Moses came first in 122 consecutive 400 metres hurdles races from 1977 to 1987. Each an incredible record, each belittled when compared to that of Esther Vergeer."

Esther Vergeer hasn’t had a bad day at the office for the past 8 years and 9 months, in the course of 429 matches. The only sportsperson to have won more consecutive matches in history, is the Pakistani squash player Jehangir Khan, who won 555 consecutive matches from 1981 to 1986. Not Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher, Lance Armstrong, Sachin Tendulkar, nor Roger Federer can claim to have dominated their sport in the way that Vergeer has.

Cynics may say sports for disabled people are not as competitive as those for able-bodied persons. That may be true, but anyone who has managed to rule their domain so comprehensively for almost a decade is a champion no matter what the circumstances. Vergeer’s competitors marvel not only at her game, but at her unparalleled mental strength, which makes her the force that she is. Sharon Walraven, who often teams up with her for doubles apart from being her rival in the singles, said of playing Vergeer, “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." Dan James, coach of the American wheelchair tennis team terms her mental toughness as her strongest quality. “I have watched her down 5-2 in a set and get this look in her eye, and she goes on to win the next 5 games and take the set 7-5. I have watched her down match points in the Beijing Paralympics final and come back and win it. She is the most mentally tough athlete I have ever seen,” he says.
The thing about being so clearly at the top is, how does one maintain the motivation to remain there? You have won everything there is to win, broken all existing records, have nothing to prove to anyone. So what do you play for? Vergeer has somehow answered that question for herself and managed to remain motivated for years. And that is where she transcends all other champions of sport.

Esther Vergeer knows her winning streak will probably not last forever. She knows she will have to lose someday. But she is not going to give up without a fight. “I don’t mind losing if I’ve being outplayed by my opponent,” she says, “but I would hate to lose because I played badly.” Whether she is eventually beaten or not remains to be seen, as Vergeer plans to retire after the London Paralympics (where she is looking to get her 4th Paralympics singles gold) next year. There’s no shortage of things to do for her after tennis. Running a charity organization, pursuing a career in sports management, designing a new, improved wheelchair for disabled athletes – Esther Vergeer is looking forward to tackling challenges that she hasn’t already conquered several times over. But till then, she’s waiting to see if anyone takes up the challenge of snapping her unbelievable streak.

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