No professional athlete perhaps ever has dominated his or her sport as completely as Esther Vergeer has.
Vergeer, who is from the Netherlands and only got her first English-language Wikipedia page on Feb. 1, has not lost a match in wheelchair singles tennis since the end of January.
No, not the end of January, 2007, or even 2006, 2005, or 2004. Esther Vergeer has not lost a wheelchair singles match since January 2003. And she’s lost only one since the beginning of 2001.In nearly four and a half years, Vergeer has not been defeated. And she’s only getting better.
From August 2004 through October 2006, a period of more than two years, one Paralympic games, and 120 matches, Vergeer failed to even once drop a set.
She won 240 consecutive sets.
On August 11, 2004, Vergeer dropped the second set of the Swiss Open finals to Florence Gravellier. She would then win the final set and the match and every set in her next 120 matches, a total of 239 sets as her opponent retired after one set in one match. Many of the sets she won without losing a game.
In fact, only once was she even sent to tiebreaker.
And since losing the first set of her quarterfinal to Korie Homan in October at the United States Tennis Association U.S. Open in San Diego, Vergeer has won 56 consecutive sets, only twice being pushed even to 6-4.
More importantly, she is the seven time defending world champion, including gold medals in both singles and doubles at both the 2000 and 2004 Paralympic games.
And impressively, the Dutch star is still only 25.
Vergeer became a paraplegic when she was eight years old after what was otherwise a successful surgery to remove hemorrhaging blood vessels from her spinal chord. She learned to play sports while recovering, her best being basketball and tennis.
She turned professional in wheelchair tennis in 1995, with her first Super Series title occurring at the USTA U.S. Open in 1998 in San Diego. In 1999, she reached number one in the world for the first time and has stayed there almost non-stop since then.
She has won more than 200 titles combined in singles and doubles, easily the most of any player in wheelchair tennis history. Her career singles record is 471-25 with her doubles record standing at 323-26.
Additionally, Vergeer has won each of the four Super Series events more than a half dozen times, which are the grand slam equivalents on the tour, usually without facing a serious challenge.
And Wednesday, Vergeer will play for the first time in the French Open at Roland Garros. The Grand Slam is the last of the four to allow wheelchair tennis to compete, as eight men and women will compete in singles and doubles.
While none of the four Grand Slams are considered among the Super Series events on the International Tennis Federation tour for wheelchair tennis, it still is an important step towards bringing these athletes to the attention that they deserve.
Unfortunately, that attention will still be minimal.
As with at the other three grand slams and the Pacific Life Open, which are the only five ATP/WTA-level events that have wheelchair tennis in addition to the main draw, there is no television coverage and all the matches are on small courts, with the exclusion of the finals, which are usually held on the secondary courts.
And the prize money is meager.
Vergeer, who has won 112 career titles in singles and 101 in doubles, receives about $1500 for each victory, not nearly enough to survive let alone prosper.
And she wins every tournament she enters.
“Prize money alone is not enough,” Vergeer told talkabouttennis.com. “Winning a tournament earns me between $1000 and $1500, so I really need sponsorship money. I still live with my parents at the moment, so I manage to make ends meet. Next year, however, I’m moving out to live on my own and I’m not sure how much money that will leave me with”
Seven years of being the unquestionable top professional in her field and she is still living with her parents just to get by.
And that’s a shame.
Vergeer plans to keep going at least through the 2008 Paralympic games, practicing four times a week and conditioning semi-weekly, and probably beyond that. And although it is somewhat cliché, Vergeer aspires to be like Lance Armstrong.
“There are people I admire, like Lance Armstrong,” she said in the same interview. “People who, in spite of whatever setbacks they’re faced with, don’t let things get them down. They fight for what they want to achieve, which I find a wonderful thing to see. I really don’t like people who give up without even trying.”
Vergeer and the other men and women on tour are playing tennis, the same tennis Roger Federer and Justine Henin are playing, and nobody gives them even a glance.
And that too is a shame.
It’s a shame because Vergeer might be the most dominating tennis player of all time, at least since Suzanne Lenglen during the early 1920s. Heck, Vergeer might be the most dominating athlete of all time.
Yet, when she takes the court Wednesday at Roland Garros, she’ll be playing on one of the back courts.
The courts that unheralded qualifiers play on during the first two rounds before they lose in the third round, if they get that far; the courts that Federer and Henin and the like wouldn’t be caught dead practicing on. No, Federer and Henin will be playing on Chatrier or Lenglen, the two premier courts.
It’s sad that Vergeer cannot even play on Lenglen, considering Lenglen is named after Suzanne Lenglen, the only person who ever dominated tennis as completely as Vergeer has.
But that’s the glamorless world that these players live in.
Vergeer most likely will win the French Open at Roland Garros with ease. History has shown that it is nearly impossible to beat her.
However, the only thing more unlikely than a Vergeer defeat is that anyone will care that when she wins.
And that, above everything else, is the biggest shame.
Bigger than the lack of prize money, bigger than being forced to play on the back courts.
Vergeer is infinitely better at what she does than Roger Federer or Justine Henin, than Tiger Woods or Barry Bonds or LaDanian Tomlinson. Federer and Henin and Woods occasionally lose; Bonds can strike out; Tomlinson has been tackled.
But nobody beats Vergeer, not ever. Rarely does anyone even come close.
Yet, nobody has heard of her. Probably, nobody ever will.