Adieu Esther Vergeer, there will never be another
Esther Mary Vergeer, the legendary wheelchair tennis player with a litany of mind-blowing records, has decided to call it a day. It was a career that seemed immortal, so her departure evokes a sudden sense of emptiness, as though Father Time has snatched away a part of us that shall never be returned. Of course it isn’t like someone lost their life, but the thought that Esther will no longer play has left in me a crater the size of that Big Hole in Kimberley.
The pirate that Esther is, she will walk away with the treasure having enthralled many minds and stirred a million souls. A remarkable story of human spirit and a treasured piece of athletic history has come to an end, at least on the tennis court. Word is rife that the beautiful woman will adorn the Nederlands Olympisch Comité, her nation’s Olympic committee. Right now though, it is time to celebrate her desire for constant improvement and unmatched consistency. She was prolific, successful beyond comparison, and a serial winner. But most of all she left a profound imprint on sport, not just her chosen vocation.
Esther did it all with a beautiful smile, but behind the warm visage was a mean machine designed to defeat every opponent that walked in her tireless path. She drew comparisons with squash legends – Jahangir Khan with that magical win streak of 555, and Heather McKay who went undefeated between 1962 and 1981, collecting 16 consecutive British Open Squash titles along the way. The lady has decided to walk away, and even if one were to steal words and sentences to capture the pregnant emotion delivering the swell of tears, it would barely be enough to express the deep sense of gratitude and joy mixed with a strange sense of devastation that has overwhelmed me in the hours since learning of the retirement of Esther. A hero in the true sense, her persistent defiance in the face of adversity has swept us able-bodied people off our feet, even as she was herself seated in a wheelchair that danced to her every tune.
In the thirty-three years of my passionate love affair with sport, not one man or woman managed to take my soul with them at their retirement. I have experience a void in the past, a flowing current of emptiness that courses through the veins and weakens the limbs, albeit temporarily – Sunil Gavaskar, Boris Becker, Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras – a sample from an endless list of stars that evoked strong emotion, but never tears. Ayrton Senna did, but then the genius lost his life in the most tragic of circumstances. Mary is different, and I only realised how much she had grown into my sport-riddled soul as I poured through the reports of her retirement. No shame admitting my unrequited love for a woman who covered the tennis court with unmatched elegance and imagination.
She is about the age of Roger Federer and just as much a study in athletic perfection as is the Swiss maestro. Speaking of perfection, I was about five years old when Nadia Comaneci mesmerised the world with her amazing symmetry on the uneven bars. It was an effort that symbolised perfection, a few moments of divinely inspired dance that held the world at thrall; the judges gave her a ten. Alas, I could only read about it and let my imagination paint the ageless portrait. But then came Esther, saving me the labored meditative effort of understanding the nuances of sporting perfection from words leaping out of paper. Here she was in flesh and blood, unbeaten since her loss to Daniela di Toro in January 2003 – Esther has left a trail of unparalleled success over the past decade. The perfect decade from an athlete rendered imperfect by nature; how could I ask for more?
21 Grand Slam singles titles, 23 in doubles, 4 Paralympic singles gold medals, 162 singles titles and 134 in doubles. Since that loss to Daniela at the Sydney International, she has won 470 consecutive matches and 120 tournaments. “I learned a lot from that match,” she once said. “I saw it as a start, to become more professional and focused. After that I have been more successful than ever.” She has dealt her opponents a double bagel on an incredible 95 occasions, and faced only a single match point (in the finals of the Beijing Paralympics) since that loss in 2003. It is a tale of unimaginable dominance driven by a passion for excellence and fueled by tireless hard work. “Esther Vergeer is a tremendous ambassador not only for tennis but also for disability sports. She is an inspiration to many,” ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti said. “Wheelchair tennis owes her a huge debt of gratitude for her professionalism and her quality as a player.”
Esther’s was a human story that transcended sport, for her indomitable will to win despite the insurmountable odds. At the age of eight, Paraplegia struck her body but barely could it tame her spirit during a surgery to address haemorrhaging blood vessels around her spinal cord. The young girl indulged herself in volleyball, basketball and tennis during her rehabilitation. Quickly though, sport became her calling and she pursued basketball for many years, culminating in her taking the European championship in 1997 playing for the Dutch national team. Marc Kalkman persuaded her to pursue tennis and helped write a most memorable chapter in the history of sport.
In her very first year as a full time tennis player, Esther won both the singles and doubles titles at the US Open in 2008. It was to be the beginning of an epic journey that lasted 15 glorious years. Her win-loss record is an unbelievable 687-25 in singles and 440-35 in doubles. “It could be just half a percentage of a better forehand, or a stronger serve. And if you can improve, then that motivates,” was how she described her mantra for sustained success. Her last competitive match was at the Paralympics in London where she won the gold medal, before deciding to take a break to assess her future. Esther had ascended to the top ranking in 1999 and only relinquished it recently when she missed the Australian Open. “I’m hugely proud of my performances, my titles, and can look back on my career with a great feeling,” said Esther, on the sidelines of the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. Esther is a director of the tournament, where Roger Federer is defending his title this week.
Vergeer’s foundation – Esther Vergeer Foundation – connects differently-abled people with sport in the hope that they may also experience the joy of winning and develop the faith needed to live a life of dignity and independence. The 31-year-old is also a patient teacher, spending hours under the sun to try and teach her craft to young boys and girls. “It’s so amazing that I can spread the message to the world that if you have a disability there’s so much that you can still do, and a lot of people in the world still don’t know that,” she said last year, while speaking of the foundation.
It is a tale of true spirit, determination and an undying desire to constantly move the marker in the quest for improvement. It is a story of an athlete, incomplete only in form. The legs for her dreams were a pair of wheels and a pumping heart. It never mattered to her that she had to do it all from an incongruous wheelchair, neither should it for us. Esther Vergeer is a supreme athlete comparable with the best in the business.
Adieu Esther, we will miss you.