by Nate Chura
As you marvel at the power of Serena Williams’ forehand, or the graceful footwork of Roger Federer, please also consider the agile wheelchair moves of Esther Vergeer.
Early Thursday afternoon, at Louis Armstrong stadium, the 28-year-old from the Netherlands extended a 376-match winning streak, defeating France’s Florence Gravellier, 6-2, 7-5, in the quarterfinals of the US Open Women's Wheelchair Singles.
Vergeer is the winningest wheelchair tennis player in history. The last time she lost a match was in January of 2003.
Highlights from her playing career include winning the Paralympics three times (2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing). She also took the US Open Women’s Wheelchair Singles title three times. Vergeer was the World Wheelchair Champion nine years in a row, from 2000-2008. Her career singles record is a staggering 571-25. Yes, she’s the number one wheelchair player in the world.
For those who don’t follow wheelchair tennis, the ball can bounce twice. You would hardly know this watching Vergeer and Gravellier. The ball seldom bounced twice as the athletes zipped across the court like laser beams. Gravellier is actually an effective net rusher with a fine volley. Unfortunately for the French woman, she ran up against Vergeer.
Watch Vergeer forehand in action:
Vergeer was born a normal, healthy, baby girl. At the age of eight, a rare birth defect forced doctors to remove veins in her back. The surgery went wrong and left Vergeer paralyzed from the waist down. Today, with help of old photographs, she faintly remembers her life before the operation.
“I remember playing with my brother,” Vergeer recalls. “Or playing with a dog, or going to this theme park with my grandparents. I remember the fun stuff.”
Surprisingly, she only has happy memories of her time in the hospital.
Hear Vergeer talk about making the transition to life in a wheelchair:
I suppose the question we’ll never know the answer to is: would Vergeer ever have played tennis if she wasn’t stricken with paralysis? No one in her family played the game. Vergeer first encountered wheelchair tennis as part of her physical rehabilitation program, when she was 12.
Now, the game that helped her recover from a life-changing surgery is how she makes her living. Compared to the winner of the men’s and women’s US Open singles champs, the winnings for the wheelchair event is chump change – about $9,600 for the wheelchair event, versus $1.6 million for the non-wheelchair-using singles champions. For Vergeer, being world number one helps. She has endorsement contracts with Adidas and Ernst & Young, which helps pay the bills. Vergeer is also a highly sought-after public speaker and she runs the Esther Vergeer Foundation, an organization that helps little kids with disabilities get into sports.
Vergeer used to play about 20 tournaments a season, which meant travel for about six months of the year. After the Paralympics last year, she decided to slow down, cutting her schedule in half. Whether she plays or not, one thing is certain: Esther Vergeer is making the most out of her life.