NEW YORK – One of these days she will not win the US Open. Maybe. But don’t count on it.
Just count on the wheeler-dealer of Flushing Meadows to ride the paved range like Annie Oakley, hitting her targets at will, making sure of one thing: you lose.
It has been this way –- her way – for years since she began competing. Fourteeen years, to be exact — while the world became her tennis ball. As the Open’s wheelchair championships commence today, Esther Maria Vergeer of Voerden, Netherlands, the chairwoman of the chairs, will begin defending her winning streak that seems to reach the moon.
That’s all you have to say to identify a great, invincible champ who was last defeated before the Red Sox Idiots, Barack Obama or 50 Cent made it big. The mishap occurred in January, 2003, at the hands of Aussie Daniela di Toro at the Sydney International.
Daniela says: “There is no one better to share a court with than Esther. We’ve been playing together for 15 years. She always asks so much of you and challenges you when you are playing. Her balls are hit so hard, they always come back. It’s always really fun! A great adversary.”
After that loss, the numbers rolled in like a gravy tide as Esther has been ranked No. 1 for 11 successive years, winning the world title for 10 of those years. That included 393 – repeat 393! — straight singles match wins (bolstering 14 major singles titles). Her record in the majors in doubles: 13 titles, including one Grand Slam in 2009. Also the singles and doubles golds at the 2000-04, Olympics, gold in singles and silver in doubles at the 2008 Olympics.
As P.T. Barnum would have crowed, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
Quite possibly because, at 29, Vergeer, seeking her fifth US Open crown, is far from peaking, and as cheerful as ever, has recently set up housekeeping with her guy, Marijn Zaal.
One of the premier professional coaches, Sven Groeneveld, says, “I’ve been working with Esther for about a year. Everytime I am on the court with her, I am in awe. I learn things from her. It is wonderful to spend time with someone who is so dedicated to her sport.”
Numbers, numbers, numbers.
Overwhelming, but they won’t tell the vital story of an 8-year-old who, awakening from risky surgery for an overabundance of hemorrhaging blood vessels, wondered why she couldn’t walk.
Paralysis from the waist down – for life — was the bitter answer. A paraplegic.
“It was hard to take at first, difficult,” says she, a lovely blonde with corn-blue eyes and powerful arms that keep her moving and spinning on the court, delivering devastating blows.
Her handshake is pulverizing. “Society can be tough at times on people like us. But I realized I had to pick myself up. I had played hide-and-seek before my surgery, and played it afterwards in my chair. My friends in Woerden – my hometown near Amsterdam – were very supportive. But not overprotective. My brother, Sander, was ashamed to be seen with me at times – but he got past that. Now we are very close.
“Of course my parents did all they could but they promoted self-sufficiently too. I
had my household chores. School was school, nothing special as today. But my rehab was terrific. Lots of sports – basketball, volleyball and tennis, which really grabbed me.
“From age 12 I loved it and the people in it. I’m always thrilled to play tournaments. Will I lose someday?” She pauses and grins. “Of course. Everybody does. I don’t think it will depress me. It’s been such a long time.
“My closest call was at the Beijing Olympics final. I was down match point, serving against Korie Homan. I almost panicked. I started wondering what people would think if I lost. How would my parents, my friends would feel? Me? Then I ceased my thinking, determined to put the ball over the net. I hit it softly with a lot of spin. A kicker, and she put it into the net. Later, it still took me three match points to finish her off.”
Esther may be in Roger Federer or Venus’s league as far as competitive achievement goes. But the payoff for these tremendous chair terrors is shockingly low: $ 9600 first prize compared with $ 1,700,000 in the cushier Federer/Williams neighborhoods.
Despite her acclaim and success, Vergeer figures she makes only $ 40,000 at most annually. “It’s expensive to travel with two chairs and all the equipment. But I do get help from my sponsors (Head, addidas, Quickie, Ernst & Young, Sponsor Bingo Loteri, Mercedes, REAAL). And they aid me in my [Esther Vergeer] foundation organizing wheelchair sports.
Yesterday afternoon she enjoyed a special perk, hitting with Martina Navratilova.
An explosive shotmaker, she is hell on wheels, moving swiftly and going for the kill. On a shot I call Vergeerian Violence, she uses the same face of the racket for backhand or forehand, twisting around to complete a wildly effective overhead smash. Federer has nothing like it. On defense she plugs more hopes than her homeland’s Little Boy at the Dike.