Published January 13, 2015
Esther Vergeer knows more about dominating tennis streaks than Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or the Williams sisters — combined.
Vergeer hasn't lost in 345 matches of wheelchair tennis, a string that goes back 5 1/2 years.
But even Vergeer gets jittery. That was the case Monday in her first-round match of the Paralympics against Daniela Di Toro, a former No. 1 player from Australia and the last woman to beat her.
"It was an important match and I was kind of nervous in the first couple of games," said Vergeer, a celebrity in the Netherlands, the country with the world's best wheelchair tennis players.
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"A couple of years ago she was my biggest rival," Vergeer added. "The stadium is full and there are a lot of people watching, and that is also very different from what we are used to."
Vergeer won 6-2, 6-0 to reach win No. 345 before several thousand people on Court No. 1 at the Beijing Olympics tennis complex. Her overall record is a staggering: 548-25.
The 27-year-old Vergeer has won four gold medals in the last two Paralympics — in both singles and doubles — and she's favored for two more this time. All that stands in her way are the next three players in the rankings — all from the Netherlands.
Vergeer was paralyzed from the waist down as an 8-year-old when she underwent surgery to remove a birth defect to a vein on her spinal cord.
"During that surgery they also removed the good veins," Vergeer explained. "When I woke up I had paralysis."
She was not a tennis player at the time but eventually came under the coaching of Aad Zwaan, now her private coach and the national team coach for the Netherlands' wheelchair program. Zwaan is known as the "papa of wheelchair tennis."
Zwaan started training wheelchair players almost three decades ago when a close friend and a tennis player — Jan Planken — was left paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. Zwaan also coached Rick Molier, the former No. 1. Zwaan credits Molier with raising the sport's profile.
"This sport is a second chance, a new start in your life," Zwaan explained, giving the pitch he's given to hundreds of disabled athletes. "You can choose to sit in your room and look through the window at the tulips growing in the flower box, or you can get out and do something with your life."
Vergeer enjoys some celebrity in the Netherlands and travels to 20-25 tournaments a year — from Europe to Australia, America and Asia. In the last two years she's played tennis full time, thanks to sponsorships, assistance for the national Olympic committee and the Dutch tennis federation, and her own personal foundation.
"Nowadays people recognize me more and more," she said. "But I'm one of the few (disabled) athletes that gets in newspapers and on TV shows."
Tuesday marked the third day of the Paralympic Games, in which some 4,000-plus athletes use many of the same Olympic venues, with 148 countries represented and 472 medal events contested — 170 more than the Olympics.
The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Koehler and South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo. China is keen to use the Paralympics to underscore what is says it has done for the country's 83 million disabled citizens.
Through three days, China leads with 16 gold and 53 overall. Britain is second with 16 gold and 34 overall. The United States is third with 10 gold and 26 overall.
American Erin Popovich won her third gold medal in the pool, taking the 100 breaststroke for her disability class. She has also won gold in the 200 IM and the 100 freestyle.
Popovich won seven gold medals in Athens. She will go for only six this time as her other gold in 2004 came in a relay, which has been cut from the program. Other U.S. women swam to gold, including Jessica Long, Ashley Owens Rudy Garcia-Tolson and Miranda Uhl.
Americans Jerome Singleton and Brian Frasure earned silver and bronze in the 100 meter sprint.
Pistorius is a favorite to win the 200 and 400. South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius took gold, clocking at 11.17.