On 30 January 2003, at the Sydney International Women’s Wheelchair Tennis, local favourite, past champion and former World No. 1 Daniela Di Toro destroyed top seed Esther Vergeer 6-4, 6-1, and went on to reach the final. This apparently unremarkable match was to go down in history as the last ever defeat for Esther. Between this match and her retirement in February 2013, the world of sports would witness one of the most remarkable streaks of all time, as the Dutch athlete would go unbeaten for the last ten years of her career, bagging 120 titles and an astounding 470 straight match wins.
An eight-year old Esther Vergeer was diagnosed with Vascular myelopathy around her spinal cord in 1989, and the surgery that followed left her a paraplegic. During rehabilitation, she took up sports seriously as a means of accepting her new condition. Initially, she was more inclined towards Basketball, and was part of the Dutch national team that won became the European champions in Wheelchair Basketball in 1997. Then in 1998, when she joined university, she dropped Basketball and focussed on Tennis, on advice of a Tennis coach who saw her playing and spotted her talent.
Her first title came in Tilburg in 1996. She became for the first time in World No. 1 in 1999. The 2000 Summer Paralympics saw her winning Gold medals in both Singles and Doubles, soon after which in October 2000 she gained the World No. 1 spot again, not to relinquish it till January 2013, weeks short of her retirement. Her entire singles career gave her 148 titles including 21 Grand Slams and four Paralympic Golds, 668 weeks at No. 1, and a career record of 700-25. Her doubles career is not too far behind, with 136 titles including 23 Grand Slams and three Paralympic Golds, and a career record of 440-35.
In the 470-match streak, Esther dropped as few as 18 sets in all. Only once in the entire decade did she face a match point, against Korie Homan in the Gold Medal match of the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing. Esther recalls this as the most valuable moment of her career, and also the most scary moment of her Paralympics experiences. That is the only time the streak came close to snapping, but she managed to keep her focus and thwart two match points, and eventually bag the Gold. In 2010, Esther became the first disabled athlete to feature on ESPN’s Body Issue.
[Parts of the material have been taken from Esther Vergeer’s interview with Laureus, the transcript of which is available on their website.]