The UNIQLO Interview: Esther Vergeer
For September’s UNIQLO Interview the ITF spoke to eight-time Paralympic medallist and 13-time ITF Wheelchair Tennis World Champion Esther Vergeer about life since the end of her playing career and her thoughts on the future of wheelchair tennis.
The most successful wheelchair tennis player of all time, Esther Vergeer has remained heavily involved in the sport since announcing her retirement in February 2013 with a 470 match winning streak stretching back more than 10 years.
Whether introducing more children to wheelchair tennis through the work of her own foundation or undertaking the role of tournament director on the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour, Vergeer’s passion for the sport was first fuelled by a desire to be the best from a young age.
“I played both basketball and tennis for a long time and in the end I thought wheelchair tennis was more challenging for me. It was an individual sport and I liked the fact that it was an individual sport because I could make my own plan,” says Vergeer when reflecting on the decision to concentrate her efforts in one pursuit.
“At the time there was much more to achieve in tennis then at basketball. With basketbal I was already on the national team, but with tennis the best was yet to come. There was a chance on getter higher on the ranking. Maybe even a Top 10 position, and maybe even participating at the Paralympics. So there was a lot to fight for and I really wanted to become the best player I could become.”
The physical, mental and social benefits of sport are, of course, well documented, and it was sheer enjoyment that laid the foundations for a career that was to reach legendary status.
“I became paralysed (the result of an unsuccessful surgery) when I was eight-years-old and all of a sudden you have no clue what your life’s going to bring. And because of sports I really found something joyful. I suppose sport gave me the tools, the knowledge, the self-confidence that I needed to position myself in society. Self-confidence and knowing what you’re able to do, but also knowing what you’re not able to do and being OK with that is probably the best thing that sport gave me,” says Vergeer.
“Except, of course, the opportunity to travel around the world and meet fantastic people and be able to be a role model and send messages out to the world about people with disabilities. That’s all part of what elite sport gave me, but I guess sport in general and the fundamentals of sport mostly gave me the self-confidence after I got paralysed.”
The joy that Vergeer, now 36, first discovered in sport is the thing that she and her colleagues at the Esther Vergeer Foundation have sought to share with increasing numbers of young disabled people since the Foundation’s inception in 2004, but more recently the Foundation has adopted a new focus.
“There are lots of organisations in the Netherlands that organise clinics for one day and make the kids happy for one day and then don’t have much else to offer to the kids so they can play a specific sport for a longer period of time. So for us the focus is on how we connect the kids to a local tennis club and we make sure there is a little group of wheelchair kids becoming a member of that club and facilitate them to get lessons for at least eight weeks and after that eight weeks we continue to make it possible for them to join the that club for a year,” says Vergeer.
“So whether it be financial help or the provision of something material like a tennis wheelchair, we help with the whole process of when you first become introduced to wheelchair tennis through to a year or two years later when you finally decide ‘yes, this is my sport and I want to provide for myself’. And it’s exciting because we see that it works.
“When I retired myself and I was talking to the Dutch Federation (KNLTB) there were not a lot of youth players becoming members of tennis clubs. So that was quite worrying and frustrating in terms of who was going to be the next generation. So we’ve seen 60 kids now, in a year-and-a-half, become members of a tennis club. We don’t know if they have talent, but we are just wanting them to connect to a club; and maybe eventually there’s going to be new talent that will make it internationally, but that’s not our main goal.”
While championing the development of wheelchair tennis, at the other end of the sporting spectrum Vergeer’s experience in elite sport resulted in her being named Deputy Chef de Mission for the Dutch Paralympic Team at Rio 2016, a role she initially found strange after winning seven gold medals at four successive Games from Sydney to London.
“Itwas quite hard to be honest. I was kind of jealous. I wasn’t sure whether that was the right place for me to be in. It was quite weird being in the Paralympic village and not being an athlete. But when the athletes came into the village I could actually talk to them and I could actually help them and I could provide them with some information in making sure facilities were OK, support them and cheer for them. And I could have a shoulder for them if and when something went wrong,” she recalls.
Any initial trepidation gave way to immense pride as Dutch players once again dominated the women’s singles and doubles wheelchair tennis events.
“I felt very proud. I didn’t know if I would be able to feel proud of someone else’s achievements, but I was actually even more proud of the team than I was of myself at that moment of winning a gold medal. It was one of the coolest things I’ve done,” says Vergeer.
“We planned it in a way that I was able to go to the tennis two or three days and watch the finals. Of course it was weird seeing Jiske winning the gold medal, because I was used to being on that podium, I was used to feeling the goose bumps from winning the gold medal. But I still got the goose bumps in a different way. I was sitting with my brother because he was there in a different role and sharing the emotions with him was very special.”
From being Deputy Chef de Mission in Rio, Vergeer has recently been named Chef de Mission for the Dutch Paralympic Team at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Paralympics.
“The Winter Games are smaller than the Summer Games, so it’s more controllable and I’m very glad I can get a feel for being responsible for the whole team in that environment. I went to the alpine skiing venue recently and, of course, you’re waiting at the bottom of the mountain for the athletes, so it has a very different way of how you feel connected to the sport. Not in a bad way, but it is totally different as the action is taking place further up the mountain, but I’m very much looking forward to the whole experience.”
With the Winter Paralympics taking place next March, a few weeks earlier Vergeer will be in much more familiar territory as she reprises her role as tournament director for the ABN AMRO World Wheelchair Tennis Tour in Rotterdam.
The ITF 1 Series event on the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour is one of several wheelchair tournaments during the year to take place alongside an ATP World Tour or WTA event.
“I see that the partnership or collaboration with ATP and WTA events is very important for profiling wheelchair tennis and for getting it more seen. Of course, the regular standalone wheelchair tennis tournaments need to exist and they are very, very important for the development and the growth of the sport. But to raise the profile of wheelchair tennis ad getting it seen by more and more public I think it is important that we are integrating more and more tournaments throughout the year,” says Vergeer.
“So I think probably the challenge wheelchair tennis is facing is how can we make a balance between those tournaments for profiling the sport and those tournaments for growing the sport. I think that is a question for the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Strategy Taskforce.
“For the tournament I am tournament director for, ABN AMRO, the main sponsor, wanted wheelchair tennis to be integrated into the event and they shared that with Ahoy Rotterdam, who owns the tournament, and convinced them to have a try-out first,” Vergeer continues.
“So they then came to me and said we would like to have an exhibition. And after the success of the exhibition they wanted to start a wheelchair tennis tournament and asked me to be the tournament director. And then we had to prove ourselves for them to be really convinced that it was adding value to the overall tournament.”
The value and success of the ABN AMRO Wheelchair Tennis Tournament is evident in that the event celebrates its 10th edition in 2018 and the tournament’s integration into a wider high-profile event is just one of the things that Vergeer would like to see more of in the next ten years as wheelchair tennis moves onwards towards its 50th Anniversary.
So what else does Vergeer hope for the future of her sport?
“I hope to see more new players because I think, at the moment, there are a lot of the same players year after year. So I would like to see the sport grow in numbers, I would like to see the sport grow in professionalism, I would like to see the sport grow as being part of able-bodied tennis and then as a result of that it will be hopefully bring more interest in a commercial aspect.”
Vergeer’s numerous achievements and much-lauded winning streak have undoubtedly played an invaluable part in raising the profile of wheelchair tennis and her status in world sport has resulted in Vergeer being featured in the film aptly entitled ‘Winning’, which recently had its World Theatrical Premiere in New York during the US Open.
‘Winning’ traces the stories of Vergeer, Martina Navratilova, Jack Nicklaus, Nadia Comaneci and Edwin Moses and their journeys to their historic successes in their respective sports. Vergeer is understandably immensely proud to be included in such a stellar line-up of sporting stars, but among her hopes for the future is the opportunity to see the film for herself.
“It’s a great honour. To be honest I’ve not seen the full film yet, which is a bit weird, but I am very proud to be on the list of athletes featured, alongside such heroes. I heard early in 2011 that they wanted me to be in the film and in 2011 and 2012 they filmed me and they came to different tournaments and filmed me and asked me questions. So I look forward to watching it when I get the chance,” declares Vergeer.