Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Putting Djoker's streak in perspective
By Greg Garber
PARIS -- Three games into her quarterfinal match at Roland Garros, Esther Mary Vergeer was actually down a break. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be worthy of a news flash, but Novak Djokovic isn't the only tennis player with a long win streak going these days.
The Dutch player rallied, though, breaking right back on Annick Sevenans of Belgium, and eventually won 6-3, 6-2.
You may not have heard her name, but Vergeer is considered by some to be the most dominant athlete in the world.
After Wednesday's triumph, Vergeer has now won 416 consecutive wheelchair tennis matches. She still must cover some distance to catch Jahangir Khan's streak of 555 consecutive squash victories, set from 1981-86, but she is working on what is believed to be the longest winning streak in any sport.
That's eight years and more than four months without a loss.
"Is it?" she asked coyly after her match. "Thank you."
For doing the math, she meant.
This is relevant, because there has been a lot of attention on Djokovic's tear through the beginning of the 2011 season. Heading into Friday's semifinal match with Roger Federer at Roland Garros, Djokovic has won 41 straight matches in 2011, and 43 in a row going back to last year's Davis Cup final.
It was Federer who last beat Djokovic, on Nov. 27, 2010, in the semifinals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. The score was 6-1, 6-4, and the 24-year-old Serb has been a winner ever since.
That means he's gone six months and four days without losing, a formidable achievement in the cut-throat world of professional tennis.
"I think it's great, it's awesome," Vergeer said. "His form, his attitude on the court. Very, very impressive."
Vergeer, who turns 30 in July, has dwarfed that period of invincibility. The last time she lost a match was Jan. 30, 2003, to Australia's Daniela Di Toro at the Sydney International. Since then, she's been virtually perfect. Between August 2004 and October 2005, Vergeer won 250 consecutive sets with only one tiebreaker; Djokovic, by comparison, has played 101 sets during his streak and lost 10.
Vergeer has powerful arms that even the strapping Sam Stosur would probably trade for. Her legs, though, are frail -- she was struck with paraplegia as an 8-year-old growing up in the Netherlands. During rehabilitation, she learned to play basketball, volleyball and tennis in a wheelchair.
The top seed here, Vergeer is on track to win her 18th Grand Slam singles title and her 19th major doubles championship. In all, she has collected 148 singles titles and 126 in doubles. She is not all business, though. Last year, she found time to pose for ESPN The Magazine's body issue -- completely naked in her wheelchair.
Vergeer said she doesn't actually count the wins, but her website keeps her aware.
"I don't think about that, actually," she said. "I really don't. I'm not playing those matches because I wanted to make 417 or 418. Two years ago, I was worried about losing. I was scared. My mindset changed.
"The day is going to come. Just the one thing I hope is that she's going to be better, not that I played worse."
While men's tennis is deeper than it's ever been, the talent pool in wheelchair tennis is far shallower. There are only a handful of elite players, so the two streaks are essentially apples and oranges.
Still, does she compare her streak to Djokovic's?
"Not one-on-one," Vergeer said. "No. The whole situation is different. The competitors, the tournaments that he plays. It's a whole different environment.
"You know, I hit a tennis ball and he hits a tennis ball -- and that's about it."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.