(Even) More Than a Number

by: Steve Tignor | February 19, 2013

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Great athletes often become known for a number. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. Hank Aaron hit 756 home runs. Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors; Roger Federer has won 17. The movie about Roger Maris was called—what else?—“61*.” But Esther Vergeer, the wheelchair tennis champion from the Netherlands who retired this week, may go down in history with the most impressive number of all affixed to her name: 470.

That’s how many consecutive matches Vergeer won from January 2003 to September 2012, when she won her fourth gold medal at the Paralympics in her final match. Only her own decision to stop playing could bring the 31-year-old's streak to a close. It may not be the first comparison that comes to her mind, but Vergeer is as close to Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight fighter who retired undefeated, as tennis will ever get.

There’s obviously more to Vergeer than any single number, or set of numbers, can convey. But I can’t think of another athlete whose statistics are as fun to recite. Her career was about astonishing dominance, and each stat brings a fresh smile of astonishment with it.

—Before her 470 match streak, she had won 89 straight. That makes for a tidy 559-1 record in her last 560 matches.

—During her longer streak, she won 95 matches 6-0, 6-0 and 348 sets 6-0. Her opponents won an average of 1.4 games per set.

—Vergeer spent 668 weeks, and 13 straight years, at No. 1. She won 21 singles Grand Slams, and four Paralympics singles golds.

—She faced just one match point during the streak, to her countrywoman Korie Homan in the gold medal match at the 2008 Paralympics. Homan netted a backhand.

Vergeer later said that her mind was swirling as she wheeled herself to the baseline to serve when she was down match point. What was she thinking about? “I was thinking," she said, "‘What are my parents going to say? What is the press going to say? Am I going to cry?’”

These were honest words of vulnerability from a woman who showed none of it on court. But they weren’t uncharacteristic. Vergeer always sounded genuinely thrilled to be mentioned by other tennis greats like Federer (he authored the foreword to her new autobiography) and Serena Williams. And after posing nude for the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue in 2010, she admitted later that she had been surprised and hurt when some people questioned the photo’s appropriateness.

What set Vergeer apart as a competitor wasn’t the arrogance of a champion, but her simple, practical desire to continually get better, to put the process first and let the results come. Years into her streak, she began working with her countryman Sven Groeneveld, a widely experienced pro coach. Groeneveld said he wondered what he could possibly teach someone who hadn’t lost in six years, but he was quickly amazed by her willingness to try to get even better. It makes sense that Vergeer says “improving” herself, however she can, will be one goal of her life after tennis.

Vergeer, in a way, almost made winning look too easy. You might wonder: If her opponents were only getting 1.4 games per set, how hard could it have been for her? The answer is that her achievement was different from that of athletes who learn from their losses or take years to reach their potential. Anyone who has ever played a sport, especially an individual sport, knows that there’s nothing more nerve-wracking than trying to beat someone you’re supposed to beat. Vergeer faced those nerves every time she played, for 10 years, and never succumbed to them. That’s the real meaning of 470.

Tennis meant more from the start to Vergeer than it does to most of its able-bodied players—it gave her her life back. She was paralyzed after a spinal surgery at age 8 went wrong. “In the beginning, it was hard,” she said. But tennis, which she took up at 12, “made me realize that the world doesn’t end.”

In this, and in what she achieved, Vergeer is more than just a tennis player. The sport should be proud of her, but in this case it should also be proud of itself. Wheelchair tennis was begun in California in the 1970s; few then would have believed that, four decades later, one of its players from the Netherlands would make the cover of a magazine issue dedicated to what the body can do, rather than what it can’t. Few then would have thought that a disabled tennis player could put herself in the conversation for Most Dominant Athlete of All Time. Esther Vergeer was (even) more than a number.

Originally published on ESPN.com.

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