Paralympian keeps 345-match win streak alive

No. 1-ranked wheelchair tennis player in the world Esther Veerger returns a ball during a wheelchair tennis match against former top seed Daniela di Toro at the Paralympic Games in Beijing on Monday. Elizabeth Dalziel, The Associated Press

AP

No. 1-ranked wheelchair tennis player in the world Esther Veerger returns a ball during a wheelchair tennis match against former top seed Daniela di Toro at the Paralympic Games in Beijing on Monday. Elizabeth Dalziel, The Associated Press

By Stephen Wade

BEIJING – Esther Vergeer knows more about dominating tennis streaks than Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or the Williams sisters – combined.

Vergeer hasn’t lost in 345 matches of wheelchair tennis, a string that goes back 5 1/2 years.

But even Vergeer gets jittery. That was the case Monday in her first-round match of the Paralympics against Daniela Di Toro, a former No. 1 player from Australia and the last woman to beat her.

“It was an important match and I was kind of nervous in the first couple of games,” said Vergeer, a celebrity in the Netherlands, the country with the world’s best wheelchair tennis players.

“A couple of years ago she was my biggest rival,” Vergeer added. “The stadium is full and there are a lot of people watching, and that is also very different from what we are used to.”

Vergeer won 6-2, 6-0 to reach win No. 345 before several thousand people on Court No. 1 at the Beijing Olympics tennis complex. Her overall record is a staggering: 548-25.

The 27-year-old Vergeer has won four gold medals in the last two Paralympics – in both singles and doubles – and she’s favored for two more this time. All that stands in her way are the next three players in the rankings – all from the Netherlands.

That would be No. 2 Korie Homan, No. 3 Sharon Walraven and No. 4 Jiske Griffioen. Griffioen is also Vergeer’s doubles partner. The country also has the No. 2 ranked man, Robin Ammerlaan, and No. 6 Maikel Scheffers.

“It’s such a small country we can all train with each other, and that keeps the level up,” Vergeer explained.

Vergeer was paralyzed from the waist down as an 8-year-old when she underwent surgery to remove a birth defect to a vein on her spinal cord.

“During that surgery they also removed the good veins,” Vergeer explained. “When I woke up I had paralysis.”

She was not a tennis player at the time but eventually came under the coaching of Aad Zwaan, now her private coach and the national team coach for the Netherlands’ wheelchair program. Zwaan is known as the “papa of wheelchair tennis.”

Zwaan started training wheelchair players almost three decades ago when a close friend and a tennis player – Jan Planken – was left paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. Zwaan also coached Rick Molier, the former No. 1. Zwaan credits Molier with raising the sport’s profile.

“This sport is a second chance, a new start in your life,” Zwaan explained, giving the pitch he’s given to hundreds of disabled athletes. “You can choose to sit in your room and look through the window at the tulips growing in the flower box, or you can get out and do something with your life.”

Vergeer enjoys some celebrity in the Netherlands and travels to 20-25 tournaments a year – from Europe to Australia, America and Asia. In the last two years she’s played tennis full time, thanks to sponsorships, assistance for the national Olympic committee and the Dutch tennis federation, and her own personal foundation.

“Nowadays people recognize me more and more,” she said. “But I’m one of the few (disabled) athletes that gets in newspapers and on TV shows.”

Asked if she would trade her fame for a good pair of legs, Vergeer replied with ease to a question she said she’d answered before.

“If I quit tennis and I want a family life and I find a husband and I want to have children and settle down, then it’s probably easier to have legs,” Vergeer said. “But I’m not upset, and I’m not frustrated – even though I am at times that I can’t walk.

“But walking the stairs and jumping on a trampoline are pretty much all I can’t do.”