Unbeaten since 2003: Is Esther the greatest ever Paralympian?

Dutch wheelchair tennis player Vergeer is red-hot favourite to win fourth consecutive gold medal but she can still get anxious

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The Independent Online

Esther Vergeer remembers her most recent defeat, by Daniela Di Toro at the Sydney International, as if it were yesterday. "A lot of it was down to my own bad preparations," the 31-year-old Dutchwoman recalled. "I'd been training indoors all winter long and I wasn't prepared well enough. It was my first match outdoors, in the sun and the wind. She was Australian, was used to those conditions and played well. She controlled the whole match."

Vergeer has a good memory. That latest defeat was in January 2003, since when the greatest player in wheelchair tennis history – and one of the greatest of all Paralympians – has won an astonishing 465 matches in succession.

The world No 1 since 1999 and the winner of all 21 Grand Slam singles tournaments she has entered since the first in 2002, Vergeer will attempt to win her fourth successive singles gold medal at the forthcoming Paralympic Games in London.

Wheelchair tennis has come a long way since two disabled American athletes, Brad Parks and Jeff Minnenbraker, came up with the idea in 1976. It became a Paralympic sport in 1992, and 10 years later the Australian Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to stage a concurrent wheelchair event. Within five years the three other Slams had all followed suit.

Nobody has popularised wheelchair tennis more effectively than Vergeer. Articulate, intelligent and glamorous (two years ago she posed naked in her wheelchair for a sports magazine), she has taken the sport to new levels of excellence. Her coach is Sven Groeneveld, who has worked with many of the world's top able-bodied players, including Roger Federer. She also uses a physical trainer, a physiotherapist, a nutritionist and a mental trainer.

Vergeer, who has lived all her life in Woerden, south of Amsterdam, was eight years old when an operation to repair a defect around her spinal cord left her paralysed. "That was quite a difficult time," she recalled. "I remember all my friends playing outdoors, playing hide-and-seek, and I always finished last. I had to find something else to do. Sport was my way out, the way to get rid of my energy."

She started in wheelchair basketball, becoming a European champion, but also played tennis, in which it soon became clear that she was an outstanding talent. "I said to myself, 'This is what I want to do. I want to be the best and I want to get everything out of life.' Sport gave me the opportunity to do that."

At 18, Vergeer won her first Paralympic gold medals, in singles and doubles at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She did the double again in 2004 in Athens and won singles gold and doubles silver in 2008. It was in Beijing, in the singles gold-medal match against Korie Homan, that she last faced a match point, which she admits was a strange experience.

"You can't train for those moments," Vergeer said. "You can't train for how your emotions are going to be. You can't train for what your opponent's response is going to be. It was weird. I wasn't used to that tension. I didn't know what to do. My mind went from my parents to my sponsors, from the media to my opponent, everything.

"I thought, 'How am I going to react if I lose? Am I going to cry? Is she going to cry? My parents have been so proud of me, but are they going to be disappointed?' It's weird what your mind does."

The Dutch tennis federation and Dutch Olympic committee have given much practical help to their wheelchair players, who have dominated the sport. Vergeer's training partner is Maikel Scheffers, the men's wheelchair world champion.

Watching her play, it is evident that Vergeer's mobility and speed around the court, which she traces back to her basketball days, are exceptional. She pays great attention to fitness –she has been injured only once, when she had a wrist problem – and has also helped to design the chair in which she plays.

Her mental toughness is also a great strength. "I don't show a lot of emotions, so my opponents can't tell if I'm really worried, if I'm confident, or if I'm not," she said. "I do have bad days and moments when I think that I might be losing, but I stay calm, I keep my cool.

"I know that if an opponent is beating me, there will be a lot going on in her head. She will be thinking, 'Am I going to be the first one?' That helps me because I think there are players who have skills that can beat me. They go on to the court with a plan that can beat me. But to keep that up for three sets is the most difficult thing."

Does the longer the record goes on make her more determined to keep it? "I'm not that worried about keeping it or losing it. On some days it gives me a lot of confidence and I think to myself, 'I've won all these matches, who's going to beat me?' But on the other hand I also feel pressure from outside. People are expecting me to win – and I also expect myself to win."

Despite all her success and the opportunities that tennis has brought her, has she ever thought: "Why me?" Vergeer said: "Yes, a lot of times, especially after I first became paralysed, but sometimes even now. Sometimes I just have a feeling that I would like things to be different, that I would like to be able to walk, to stand up.

"Of course I have those moments, but at the same time I'm the kind of girl who thinks that whatever life brings you, you have to make the best out of yourself."

Vergeer, who has set up a foundation to give sporting opportunities to disabled children, won the London test event at Eton Manor three months ago and is a red-hot favourite to win a fourth consecutive Paralympic singles gold medal.

Thereafter she expects to continue playing for "maybe two or three more years", by which time she may well have overtaken what is considered to be the longest winning run in the history of professional sport: Jahangir Khan, the Pakistani squash player, won 555 matches in succession between 1981 and 1986.

"I still love the game, I love playing and I love travelling," Vergeer said. "The focus now is London and the Paralympic Games. We'll see after that."

Five supreme Paralympians

Trischa Zorn US swimmer won 51 medals from 1980 to 2004 with 41 golds, more than double any other Paralympian.

Béatrice Hess French swimmer is second most successful Paralympian with 20 golds, 1984-2004.

Mike Kenny Swimmer remains Britain's most successful Paralympian with 16 golds and two silvers, 1976-88.

Jonas Jacobsson Swedish air rifle shooter won 16 gold medals, 1980-94.

Tanni Grey-Thompson British wheelchair racer won 11 golds and held more than 30 world records, 1992-2004.

Ferdinand Hunter