Who is most dominant player in professional sports today?
Who do you think is the most dominant player in professional sports today? Any sport: golf, tennis, baseball, football, basketball, soccer, hockey, skiing, no matter. Unless you guessed Esther Vergeer you are wrong.
Esther Vergeer has won over 150 singles and 120 doubles international tennis tournaments. She has won 19 Grand Slam Tournaments. Her lifetime record of 647 wins and 25 losses in singles, and 422 wins and 32 losses in doubles, cannot be rivaled. Vergeer's current winning streak is 429 matches! This incredible performance has her as the number one tennis player since 1999 in her division: wheelchair tennis. She has twice received the coveted Laureus World Sports Award (in the category of Sportsperson with a Disability).
Vergeer was at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, NYC, a few weeks ago to defend her title and show, again, how indomitable she is. She is 30 years old and a citizen of Holland.
I met Esther last year when we both received awards from a Dutch Psychiatric Association -- marking our (very different) lifetime achievements. Hers have accrued in less than half the time mine have, a humbling experience, I might add.
Esther's face has Nordic beauty with lucid blue eyes that emanate intensity. Her shoulders are like those of a professional swimmer, creating a broad shelf above her torso. Her arms are long and sinewy with the defined muscles that mark an athlete and she has hands that swallowed mine in a handshake. Her lower body sat immobilized in a wheelchair, where it has rested since she was a young girl.
When 6 years old, Esther began to experience bleeding in her spinal column from blood vessels that had developed abnormally in utero; these are called AVMs (arterio-vascular malformations). Doctors told her that there was a collection that represented a "time bomb" in terms of their potential to hemorrhage. She underwent spinal surgery at age 8 to correct the malformation. During this complicated procedure the vessel problem was repaired but critical nerve tissue was destroyed, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down (paraplegic). With the unstinting love and support of her family and her own unflinching will and discipline she began an arduous rehabilitation that ultimately led to her playing wheelchair sports.
In basketball, Esther played with the 1997 Dutch team that won the European championship. But her greatness soon emerged on the tennis court. She won her first U.S. Open in 1998 and has not looked back since. In tournament play around the world she has not lost a singles match since 2003.
I went to see her play and speak with her during her U.S. Open competition this year, which she won in both singles and doubles.
The court and the rules for wheelchair play are no different from conventional tennis, with one exception: players can have up to 2 bounces of the ball. But in matches I have seen returns on the second bounce are infrequent, as if that were a gift they did not want to take. The strength, agility and timing needed to position for a shot and rally left me feeling breathless. The players are in constant motion, scrambling, pivoting, and turning to get to where their opponent will try to place the return so it is out of reach. Doubles matches have the movement and fluidity of ballet. As I watched Esther, I thought it's not a good idea to hit to her forehand and watch out for her backhand slice.
Esther's training schedule includes drilling on strokes, strength building, court mobility, cardiovascular fitness and mental coaching. She, like many fine athletes, uses cognitive exercises to stay focused, remain calm under intense pressure, and free herself from environmental distractions and demands. She mentioned how important, as well, it is for her to keep the expectations of others in perspective, and to follow her own lead. Her winning streak, she added, had been something she used to attend to, wondering when it would end. Now, she plays every game and has managed to put even that out of her mind - and not let it interfere with her continuing to win.
For someone in a wheelchair, disability accommodations make a real difference. I was delighted with her response to my question about what countries get it right. She noted that wheelchair access is better in the U.S. than in any other country she has been in, including her native Holland. That means curb cuts, elevators, ramps, toilets, parking and many other means to enable people with disabilities to not be compromised. We can thank the American Disabilities Act for that!
Esther's attitude about sports -- all aspects of her life -- is that "I can be better." "I want to be the best I can be." When I asked what her message is for people with disabilities she told me it is no different whether the person has a disability or not: "Life deals you things you did not plan, what you cannot control. This can be the loss of a loved one, a job, or a physical limitation. When that happens it is important to give it a place and move on. It's about how you respond that makes the difference."
You can view her play and persona on this video:
The opinions expressed here are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
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