Quest for Another Gold: The World's Most Dominant Athlete
Behind all the talk about Roger Federer's recent slump and Rafael Nadal's and Jelena Jankovic's climbs towards number one is a story that few people care enough to know.
In tennis, there is dominance. Federer was almost the picture of it for nearly four years from 2004 to 2007, winning 11 of the 16 grand slam tournaments over that time period, making the finals of the latter 14. But in reality, he was second-best.
Federer's accomplishments on paper are shadowed by those of Esther Vergeer, a disabled 27-year old from the Netherlands. Since the end of January, 2003, Vergeer has won 340 consecutive wheelchair women's singles matches.
In fact, at one point she went 26 months without even dropping a set, a string of 120 matches and 240 sets.
But you probably have not heard of Vergeer. Unless you have gone to the tournaments where she competes, you definitely have not seen her play. You think ESPN is going to broadcast wheelchair tennis?
But there Vergeer has been, dominating her sport unlike anyone before her. Unlike almost anyone in any sport before her.
Vergeer still has a ways to go to catch Jahangir Khan, who won 555 consecutive squash matches from 1981 until 1986, but there's no reason to think she's going to slip any time soon.
On Sunday, Vergeer dismantled compatriot Korie Homan, the world's second-ranked player and the only person to take a set off of Vergeer this year, 6-2, 6-2, winning the British Open for the eighth consecutive year.
Homan had a point for a 3-1 lead in the first set, but Vergeer fought it off and won the next seven games, cruising to victory.
Vergeer now leads the series against second-ranked Homan 33-0, dropping only three sets out of 69.
While the 22-year old Homan has been improving, she still is not even close to the same league as Vergeer.
Additionally, age is not a pressing concern for Vergeer. Wheelchair tennis players frequently compete at the top level into their forties, allowing for a staying power that just doesn't exist in most other sports.
Wheelchair tennis is almost identical to regular, mainstream tennis, but there is one significant difference: the ball is allowed to bounce twice before it is returned.
Only the first bounce must land in the prescribed area of the court. If the first bounce is ruled in and the second bounce is out, the ball is still in play unless it bounces a third time.
But none of that diminishes what Vergeer has done.
What does attempt to diminish it is how little prize money she receives for all her success.
Vergeer, who has won 130 career titles in singles and 116 in doubles, receives about $1500 for each championship, not nearly enough to survive let alone prosper.
And she wins almost every tournament she enters, occasionally suffering a defeat in doubles.
"Prize money alone is not enough," Vergeer told talkabouttennis.com in 2007. "Winning a tournament earns me between $1000 and $1500, so I really need sponsorship money. I still live with my parents at the moment, so I manage to make ends meet. Next year, however, I'm moving out to live on my own and I'm not sure how much money that will leave me with"
Seven years of being the unquestionable top professional in her field and she was still living with her parents just to get by.
That's a shame.
Vergeer plans to keep going at least through the 2008 Paralympic games, practicing four times a week and conditioning semi-weekly, and probably continue beyond that. And although it is somewhat cliché, Vergeer aspires to be like Lance Armstrong.
"There are people I admire, like Lance Armstrong," she said in the same interview. "People who, in spite of whatever setbacks they're faced with, don't let things get them down. They fight for what they want to achieve, which I find a wonderful thing to see. I really don't like people who give up without even trying."
Vergeer and the other men and women on tour are playing tennis, the same tennis Roger Federer and Ana Ivanovic are playing, and nobody gives them even a glance.
And that too is a shame.
In April, Vergeer was asked by United States wheelchair tennis coach Dan James what kept her motivated to keep getting better.
“Every time I train, and I train with Maikel Scheffers right now, he's a guy so he's faster, he's stronger, he's better than me so he beats me. For me the motivation to practice harder so I can beat him maybe once or twice is big.
“I don't see the ceiling yet. I still see things I can better.”
That's a scary thought. How much better can things get than 340 wins in a row?
Yet Vergeer goes out on the court and wins, she goes out and gets the job done, because it really is a job to her.
Vergeer doesn't have the multi-million dollar mansion, the six or seven-figure salary, the name recognition. She most likely never will.
And that's the biggest shame of all.
You would think if someone was that good, she would at least get a nod every now and then. At the very least, you would think she should get that nod.
Sure, in January she won the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, the first time since 2002 that she earned the honor. But how many of the previous champions get any attention?
Have you heard of Ernst van Dyk, the seven-time wheelchair winner of the Boston Marathon, setting a world record time in 2004?
Or 2004 winner Earle Connor, who despite setting world records for amputee sprinters in the 100-meters, 200-meters, and 400-meters runs on the same day in 2003, doesn't even have a wikipedia page? It may be a better thing that Connor is unknown, as only a few months after he won the award he was suspended for two years for doping.
But nobody gives Vergeer the attention she deserves, because if she got even an inkling of attention this is the type of story that could take off.
In a little more than a month, Vergeer will head to Beijing for the Paralympics. She will attempt to win her fifth and sixth gold medals, her third in each singles and doubles.
Borrow an unthinkable upset, she'll accomplish it.
Borrow an even more unthinkable upset, almost nobody will ever know.
Esther Vergeer might just be the most dominating athlete in the world. At the very least, she is clearly the most dominating in her sport.
Statistically, it's impossible to refute that.