The first time I saw Esther Vergeer, I was shocked, thrilled, embarrassed. In that order. You probably don’t know her, but Vergeer happens to be the most dominant athlete in the world. Maybe of all time. She retired Tuesday.
She’s a wheelchair tennis player who didn’t lose one time last year. Or the year before that. Or the year before that. Or the year before that.
Or nearly six years before that. Vergeer said she was proud of her accomplishments, but that “keeping going would not add anything.’’
Well maybe not for her. But Vergeer added plenty to the sports world, giving a face to para-athletic sports more so than anyone other than Oscar Pistorius. Vergeer added understanding and compassion to the world. She also was just a damned good tennis player.
If you missed a chance to see her play, or even to have your kids see her, well that’s too bad. We take people like her for granted, and then one day they’re gone.
Ten years without a loss. Not one bad day? Not one day when she just didn’t have it? When the backhand wouldn’t clear the net, or when she was weak from a cold and couldn’t push herself around the court without speed or energy?
She won 21 major singles titles – four more than Roger Federer – and 23 major doubles titles. She won the singles gold medal at four consecutive Paralympics, including this past summer in London. And when Novak Djokovic went on that crazy winning streak a couple of years ago, crushing Federer and Rafael Nadal and everyone else, he won 43 straight matches.
It was unreal.
Vergeer won 470 in a row.
Do you discount some of that because she was in a wheelchair and didn’t face Venus or Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova?
That’s the thing. And it takes me back to when I first saw her, at the U.S. Open in 2010. I hate to admit this, and I’m not sure what it says about me, but I was stunned to see how much of an athlete Vergeer really was. Strong and powerful arms, mixing up spins and flipping her chair back and forth before returning serves to be ready to dart out either way in a hurry.
But why wouldn’t we think of her as an athlete? That’s the embarrassing part.
So I told her. Did that offend her?
“No,’’ she said at the time. “People judge me based on the fact I’m in a wheelchair. Probably 70 percent of the people have that opinion. It’s our job to let people know. You’re obviously open to it.’’
Vergeer, a 31-year-old from the Netherlands, was not here for our education, but rather to win tennis matches. She served a greater purpose anyway, of course.
She was around for years at the majors, usually winning 6-0, 6-0 in about half an hour. It was amazing. She was just so much better than everyone else.
Vergeer can’t run or jump or tackle, but she was an athlete in mind and body. And she sent that message just by the way she played. Pistorius’ message was stronger because he reached the Olympics this past summer. He brought disabled sports into the mainstream.
It was funny meeting Vergeer, and talking tennis, trying to understand. She said she had lost use of her legs during a life-saving operation when she was 8: “It was a defect that was like a time bomb around my spinal cord.
“Yes, I remember walking, running and falling.’’
She took up wheelchair tennis as part of rehab. She took up weightlifting to help her tennis.
We talked about the way she returned serve, moving her chair left/right, left/right in a hurry, then freezing and moving forward as her opponent tossed the ball. It’s actually the same motion players who don’t use wheelchairs do.
“But you probably do a split step (a jump as the server tosses the ball),’’ she said. “We can’t do that.’’
Actually, that’s exactly what she was doing. It was detailed footwork for someone in a wheelchair. “You’ve given this a lot of thought,’’ she said.
Vergeer almost lost once during her streak, as her opponent had a match point in the gold-medal match at the 2008 Paralympic Games.
“Yes, I was nervous,’’ Vergeer said. “Even though you only have 20 seconds (to serve), in that time I was thinking a lot of things like how my parents would react or how I would react or (how) the girl that I was playing would react, or the media.
“Or would I start crying, or have a feeling of relief?’’
We’ll never know. She’ll never know, either. That’s good: The world’s most dominant athlete shouldn’t have to find out.