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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Sir Chris Hoy won six Olympic golds - in which four events?
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform