On a cool, modestly attended Court 11, Esther Vergeer likely played her last match as a professional wheelchair tennis player in Queens. About 100 fans saw a final forehand, slight fist pump and handshake with fellow Dutch player Aniek Van Koot to wrap up a 6-2, 6-1 straight-sets win to complete a perfect run. For those who did attend, Vergeer had kind words.
“If I compare the US Open fans on how they come and see us and support us to the other Grand Slams, this is one of the best tournaments we play,” said Vergeer. “We don’t get to have the big crowds, but when you see the people who are there enjoying our match and understanding what moments are important, that makes me feel good.”
On Sunday, Vergeer only saw what was coming in the nearest future – a celebratory dinner and a few adult beverages with friends, followed by some kayaking in Central Park on Monday in the hours before flying back to her Netherlands home in Woerden. If she does try to look beyond, raising her 39th career Grand Slam trophy brought thoughts of retirement.
“There’s a true feeling of pride in being part of this, and for me, some extra motivation to win,” said Vergeer. “I don’t know if I’m going to be playing long enough to come back here again.”
Modest to a fault – “I’ll have to qualify for the 2012 Paralympics in London, that’s one of my near goals,” the five-time gold medalist remarks – Vergeer has not lost a singles match since January 2003.
On 429 different occasions, she has taken to the court and defeated world-class competition each match without fail. From August 2004 to October 2006, she won 250 consecutive sets, only one of which ended with a tiebreaker. This is dominance in a sport that, without question or hint of hyperbole, we will never see again – and presumably why Vergeer is feeling it's time to move on. The 30-year-old acknowledges the streak but rarely dwells upon its significance anymore.
“If the next is going to be 430, that’s great, but if it's going to end at 430, that’s also fine with me. There was a time two years ago that I may have worried – how it might affect my play, what the media would say – but since then I’ve tried to let go of that and not worry anymore.”
After 12 US Open Wheelchair titles – six in singles, six in doubles – Vergeer has known nothing, save for success. After 12 years firmly atop the wheelchair tennis world – No. 1 since 1999 – she will soon be after a new life as an entrepreneur where victory might not be as automatic but just as rewarding.
“I would like to have my own sports marketing company because I really enjoy what’s happening with the integration of disabled sports with able-bodied sports,” said Vergeer, who also is the head of the Esther Vergeer Foundation, providing athletic opportunities for disabled children to play tennis, basketball and other sports.
“I love the fact that the US Open, for us, is a platform where we can showcase our sport. I’d like to see how far we can take this, not only from a competition standpoint, but sponsorship and media opportunities. To me, that’s an exciting challenge.”
Exactly how many in the audience were aware that Vergeer – who will play in the aforementioned Paralympics while the US Open Wheelchair competition takes a leave for one year – might be gone for good may have very well been concentrated in one small bleacher set. The foursome included her coach Sven Groeneveld and hitting partner Maikel Scheffers, along with her physical trainer and business manager.
“I wanted to thank Sven and confirm to him that I’m trying to do what he’s been urging me to do,” said Vergeer. “That’s a group that’s always supporting me and are close to me.”
Andre Agassi played his last match at the US Open in 2006 as thousands waved a tearful goodbye inside a standing-room-only crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. The loss to Germany’s Benjamin Becker was immortalized in print and on television for millions to digest. A week later, Martina Navratilova had her final Open match and win, taking a mixed doubles title with Bob Bryan 33 years after her Flushing Meadows debut as a 16-year-old.
Nearly a decade ago in 2002, Pete Sampras completed his last Open run, defeating Agassi to capture a then record-setting 14th Grand Slam tournament championship. A 39-year-old Jimmy Connors had his unlikely odyssey to the semifinals 20 years ago, one of the biggest underdog stories of 1991.
Highly visible events, undoubted history. The US Open has a few of these milestone moments. Vergeer’s vision in retirement would see her fellow wheelchair players experience the same sort of mainstream pomp.
“We feel so welcome here in the United States, a country that goes above and beyond to provide for people who have disabilities,” said Vergeer. “Anywhere you go, everything is accessible. Streets have the little ramps, there’s always an accessible toilet. Public transportation is easy to use. The buildings, they always have elevators. Handicapped parking spots, there’s enough parking.
“It’s a great country with equally great fans to play in front of each year.”
From the age of six until her sixth US Open victory, Vergeer has developed power from the paraplegia that impaired her ability to perform the basic functions most take for granted. Should it all be over in a month’s time, or a year’s time, her force has taken wheelchair tennis to an unprecedented height – the first true female star of the sport. Like Brad Parks, Randy Snow and countryman Robin Ammerlaan, she has been tireless in her pursuit for competition beyond the confines of courts or wheelchairs.
“When you can do something great and you can help other people, you should do it,” said Vergeer. “Its not a message solely for people who are disabled. There are going to be things in life that you didn’t plan or that come unexpectedly. Events that you don’t have any control over. It could be a disability, or someone passing away, or losing a job. It's about how you deal with that. You are the one that’s going to make something out of your life.”