Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pele, Don Bradman, Michael Schumacher, Wilt Chamberlain, Roger Federer... you can make a list of the most dominant sports figures in history but you will usually be missing one name.
Esther Vergeer has not only been the pre-eminent wheelchair tennis player for as long as anyone can remember – she has been untouchable.
The 31-year-old arrived in London for the Paralympics on the back of 465-match winning streak. Four-hundred and sixty-five.
She has held the world No.1 ranking since 1999, making Federer's four-year reign at the top of the men's tennis rankings look a little tame. Vergeer has not lost a singles match since 2003, and has not even seemed particularly troubled since the 2008 Paralympic final, when she eventually beat fellow Dutchwoman Korie Homan 6-2, 4-6, 7-6. In a run from August 2004 to October 2006, Vergeer won 250 consecutive sets, only once requiring a tiebreaker. She has won 42 grand slam titles (21 singles and 21 doubles) and five Paralympic titles (three singles, two doubles).
In all the known history of sport, she is second only to Pakistan's squash king Jahangir Khan, who won 555 consecutive matches in a five-year span from 1981 to 1986. But for someone so accustomed to cruising to victory, she does not sound as assured as you might expect.
"Everybody talks about this record and asks me if I feel the pressure," Vergeer said. "Maybe I do feel it more than ever in the Paralympics because I haven't lost for so long. Everybody expects me to win gold and for it to be easy, but it's not – and maybe the mental part is the toughest part. It is not only the expectations of myself, it's the expectations of my family, my team, the media. It's difficult, but I see it as a challenge. I'm the only one who can control it, so that's neat."
Vergeer developed paraplegia when she was eight, the result of a risky operation to deal with haemorrhaging blood vessels close to her spine. During her rehabilitation she took up several sports. She was part of the Dutch team which won the wheelchair basketball European Championships in 1997, but she soon switched full-time to wheelchair tennis, in which she had made her first international appearance in 1996. Her first big win came in the 1998 US Open and the titles have not dried up yet.
Back-to-back-to-back Paralympic crowns have followed, and Vergeer admits that while thoughts of retirement have crept in recently, she wants to know just how far she can go. "Two years after Beijing [where she added silver in the doubles to her singles gold] I was in a bit of doubt whether I should continue or do something else," she said. "But then I thought about what sports bring you, and there is still so much more to develop in my own game and in wheelchair tennis.
"I'm going to keep playing to see how far I can get. That's the thing for me now: what's the limit for yourself and for the sport?"
Vergeer will face Japan's Kanako Domori in her opening round match today but she admits it is her Dutch team-mates that worry her the most.
Vergeer is one of four Dutchwomen in the top five of the world rankings, with Aniek van Koot second, Jiske Griffioen third, and Vergeer's doubles team-mate Marjolein Buis fifth behind Sabine Ellerbrock of Germany.
"My own team-mates are my toughest opponents," Vergeer said. "It's been weird to have this last training camp with them, training all day with them and practising doubles and singles.You want to prepare yourself the best but you don't want to show everything you've got because you don't want to give the surprise away."Reuse content