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Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Esther Vergeer is blazing new trails

By Sandra Harwitt

She's one of the great tennis players of our time. Some would even call her the most dominant athlete of her generation. But Esther Vergeer's skills go well beyond hitting solid forehands and backhands. She does it all while racing around in her wheelchair.

Vergeer, a paraplegic since undergoing surgery for a spinal defect at 8 years old, initially pursued wheelchair basketball and tennis. She grew up in the Netherlands, where the government encourages and provides sports training to its wheelchair-bound citizens.

She found success in both sports, becoming part of the Dutch national basketball team that won the 1997 European title. But the pull to play tennis was stronger, as she enjoyed the competition, and she decided to drop basketball at 17.

Life for Vergeer, 29, has never been about being disabled. She doesn't see the limitations; she sees the possibilities. She's totally comfortable with who she is, so much so that she posed nude for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue in 2010.

"I doubted a lot," she said. "I was worried it would be vulgar. But then I thought, 'Why not.' It was like a statement. No one has a perfect body -- sumo wrestlers were featured. People should use whatever you have and be proud of it."

It is that same confidence and courage that has helped Vergeer take her place at the top of women's wheelchair tennis.

When she won her eighth Florida Open title just last month, she improved her current winning streak, which began in January 2003, to 415 singles matches. She's also captured 17 Grand Slam titles at the Australian Open, French Open and U.S. Open -- the women play only doubles at Wimbledon. She's been taken to three sets only 16 times and faced a match point just once, pulling out a 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (5) win against countrywoman Korie Homan in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics final.

"Esther Vergeer is a great athlete and an even better ambassador for wheelchair tennis," said Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the International Tennis Federation. "Her skill and personality have helped to lift the profile of wheelchair tennis around the world.''

Vergeer, the world No. 1 since 1999, approaches tennis as an on-court/off-court responsibility.

"My training depends on where I am in my tournament schedule," said Vergeer, who led the Dutch squad to the World Team Cup championship last weekend in Pretoria, South Africa. "I work on the technical and tactical things if I have time off. I go to the gym six times a week. I do a combination of strength and flexibility. I see a nutritionist and a mental coach, too."

In wheelchair tennis, players can hit the ball after two bounces instead of one, and only the first bounce needs to be within the confines of the court. More often than not, Vergeer is fast enough and powerful enough to get to the ball in just one bounce.

Wheelchair players also tend to fare better when receiving, rather than serving. That is largely because they lack body strength to put behind a serve. Vergeer, however, has partial feeling in her left leg, which gives her more strength and balance on her serve. Consequently, she often holds serve more easily than her opponents.

Aniek Van Koot, a right-leg amputee just above the knee, felt Vergeer's dominance when she lost to her countrywoman 6-0, 6-1 in the Florida Open final. "She puts a lot of pace on her shot and a lot of spin," said Van Koot, 20, ranked No. 5. "Her mobility on court, she's really fast. She's always there and ready for her shots."

In fact, Vergeer sometimes laments not being part of a great rivalry: "As an athlete, you want to have competition because that's why you're playing sports."

Before last month, the last time she'd played the Florida Open was in 2008. At that time she was feeling played out and struggling with a recent romantic breakup. Not long after, she took six months off (between November 2009 and June 2010) and has played a reduced schedule ever since.

The strategy seems to have worked. This Florida Open found her all smiles -- winning smiles, that is.

Off the court, Vergeer is an entrepreneur. She started a sports-marketing company and is the tournament director of a pro wheelchair tournament tied to the men's ATP event in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. She has started a charity, the Esther Vegeer Foundation, aimed at bringing athletic opportunities to children around the world who have physical limitations.

Her personal life is in a happy place, too.

"Fun is my boyfriend," Vergeer said of Marijn Zaal, who is also her physical trainer. "Spending time with him and we have a boat. I love to go on the boat because, if you're on the water, it's so relaxing, and there's nothing else you can do. I sometimes need that because when I'm home I'll grab my computer or I'll be on the phone."

But her focus is never far from tennis these days, specifically the 2012 Paralympics. She will arrive at the London Games as the reigning three-time gold medalist in singles and doubles (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008). "For sure, I'm going to London, that's my goal," Vergeer said. "I'm not going to say anything about after that. I don't know if I'll quit, if I'll keep playing. It depends on my physical as well as the other challenges I have businesswise."