Esther Vergeer – The Netherlands’ Roger Federer

Vergeer in action. Photo: robbiesaurus

Dutch tennis player Esther Vergeer has more Grand Slam titles than Roger Federer. Why haven’t you heard of her before?

Probably because she played wheelchair tennis, which doesn’t get a lot of media attention.

Esther Vergeer after winning the British Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships in 2010 for the 11th time. Photo: lisannekerstens
Esther Vergeer after winning the British Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships for the 11th time in 2010. Photo: lisannekerstens

Esther Vergeer hung up her racquet  just over a year ago, after 18 incredible, record-breaking years on the tour. She didn’t just go out on top, she went out head and shoulders above her peers.

Vergeer won 169 singles titles and 159 doubles titles including, 21 Grand Slam singles titles, 21 Grand Slam doubles titles and 7 Paralympic gold medals.  She retired with an active winning streak of 470 matches, undefeated since January 2003. Vergeer spent 668 weeks at World Number 1, first reaching the spot in 1999. She’s got records the likes of Roger Federer and Serena Williams can only dream of.

Esther also became the first disabled athlete to appear nude in ESPN’s The Body Issue. She consistently broke down barriers. Wheelchair tennis owes her a lot.

She was a juggernaut of a player- always looking to improve and grow. Her heavy, powerful groundstrokes were something to admire. She seemed to be always 3 steps ahead of her opponent and knew what they were going to do before they did themselves.

When she hired Sven Groenefeld as her coach in 2009, he wondered what he could bring to the table.

“What do you work on?,” he said. “What can be better if you’re undefeated for so long?” Groeneveld quickly found out that Esther was about growing, not just winning.

Vergeer began playing tennis at the age of 12 after spinal surgery 4 years earlier left her paralyzed. She  quickly found her niche in the sport. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Esther Vergeer is a great ambassador for tennis. When she retired, International Tennis Federation (ITF) President Francesco Ricci Bitti said, “She is an inspiration to many. Wheelchair tennis owes her a huge debt of gratitude for her professionalism and her quality as a player”.

I’ve watched wheelchair tennis live. It’s a tough sport. Players have to control their chair, see what their opponent does and execute their game plan. The size of the courts, racquets and balls are the same as tennis, but there are 2 main differences in the wheelchair game. Athletes use specially designed wheelchairs and the ball can bounce twice.

Vergeer in action. Photo: robbiesaurus
Vergeer in action. Photo: robbiesaurus

Vergeer may have stopped playing but she is still involved in tennis. As well as running the Esther Vergeer Foundation and making public speaking appearances, she is the director of the ABN AMRO World Tennis tournament in Rotterdam.

The likes of Esther Vergeer will never be seen in sports again.

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