Esther Vergeer's Dominance Transcends Her Wheelchair
She can't fly through the air to dunk a basketball, can't break a tackle and sprint to the end zone. But there are hitting streaks, winning streaks, and then, far, far beyond those things, off on a different planet somewhere, there is a Vergeer streak.
Seven years. That's how long it has been for this tennis player. No, it's not a string of winning the U.S. Open, or anything like that. It has been seven years since she lost one lousy tennis match.
That long without one bad day getting to you?
Well, on Sunday, the marquee match of the U.S. Open was rained out. The men's final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic has been rescheduled for Monday afternoon.
But there was just enough of a crack in the weather -- and a long one wasn't needed -- to add to the greatest dynasty in sports. It happened on an outer court.
In the U.S. Open wheelchair final, Vergeer beat Daniela di Toro 6-0, 6-0. It was her fifth U.S. Open title, and 16th major, the same number Roger Federer has won.
But get this: She now has won 396 straight matches.
Yes, 396. Throughout that whole time, Vergeer, 29 years old and from the Netherlands, was in danger of losing just once.
"During the Paralympic Games in 2008, at the gold medal match, I had one match point against me," she said. "So yes, I was nervous. Even though you only have 20 seconds (to serve), in that time I was thinking a lot of things about, like, how my parents would react or how I would react or the girl that I was playing would react, or the media.
"Or would I start crying or have a feeling of relief?''
Some other time. Maybe.
When people do tell her story, they tell it by the numbers, which you cannot ignore. But I want to talk about something a little less comfortable.
Are you discrediting her numbers because she's in a wheelchair? Honestly, I was, until watching her this week and getting an education that I would highly recommend.
Vergeer is 100 percent athlete in mind, soul and, yes, body.
It can be awkward watching a wheelchair athlete. We are taught not to stare, and yet if you want to watch Vergeer compete, you must stare. You want to stare.
What do you think of when you hear about wheelchair athletes? After Vergeer won, I fessed up to her that never in a million years would I have known she was such an incredible athlete. How could I not have known?
Did that offend her?
"No, people judge me based on the fact I'm in a wheelchair," she said. "Probably 70 percent of the people here have that opinion.
"It's our job to let people know. You're obviously open to it."
Vergeer lost use of her legs during a life-saving operation when she was 8. "It was a defect," she said, "that was like a time bomb around my spinal cord."
They hoped to remove the defect without damaging nerves, and at first, doctors thought they had succeeded. Imagine what a little girl went through.
"Yes," she said, "I remember walking, running and falling."
She had never played tennis before, and took it up in the wheelchair as part of her rehab. Today, Vergeer has extremely muscular, powerful arms, the result of maneuvering the chair, but also of lifting weights.
When waiting to return serve, she quickly turns her chair right/left, right/left, right/left. When her opponent tosses the ball, Vergeer stops the turning, freezes briefly, then moves forward.
It's the same motion many players who aren't in wheelchairs use for their returns, hopping from right foot to left, right to left.
"But you probably do a split step (a jump, when the server tosses the ball)," she said. "We can't do that."
Uh, yes you can. When Vergeer stops turning and freezes, that is a split step, albeit without the step.
It is advanced footwork without the ability to use her feet.
The only rule change for wheelchair tennis is that players are allowed to let the ball bounce twice. Vergeer slices her backhand, or crushes a topspin shot. She moves around the court and places shots with touch, a perfect lob into the corner, a power passing shot.
What about mentally?
When an opponent sees she has to play her, are they already beaten?
"I was wondering about that," she said.
She said a player can think "Oh no, I have to play Esther Vergeer," or "Oh good, I get to be the one to break the streak."
If she were the opponent, she said, she would be thrilled about the chance to break the streak.
Of course. That's how a champion thinks, hoping for a chance to try to conquer the impossible.
Vergeer, who never seems to stop smiling, is just far more of an athlete than her opponents. Sometimes you watch an athlete, and you know you are seeing something at a different level.
She says she knows her record will fall eventually, and even thought about it during the first round at the Open, which she won 7-5. 7-5.
When the record does fall, she said, she wants it to be because her opponent played well. She even knows that might serve as relief. She can't bear the thought, though, of losing because she played poorly.
That's hard to imagine. She is Michael Jordan, flying in her own way.