Back

Interview with Esther Vergeer in Amsterdam - Edited Transcript

esthervergeer_pr
Question:
How is your training going [at the Frans Otten Stadion, Amsterdam]?

Esther Vergeer:
At the moment I’m preparing for a big tournament, the Grand Slam, at the beginning of June, and this is a great facility, because it has indoor courts for when it rains and the sort of clay that are very similar to Roland Garros [French Open] and as a tennis player you would like to prepare [on the surfaces] that you’re going to play. Of course I have my specific programme for tournaments, but then I also have a time where I can work on my physical fitness, my mobility training and my mental training.

Question:
Do you have a big team of people supporting you?

Esther Vergeer:
I have to admit that my team is growing and growing and growing. I have a,tennis trainer, which is Sven Groeneveld, who also works with able-bodied top athletes.  I have a physical trainer, a mental trainer, a mechanical guy who works on my chair, a management that makes my schedule fit and a lady that give me some massages, so, it’s a big team.

Question:
I believe your boyfriend is one of your trainers?

Esther Vergeer:
Yeah.  My physical trainer Marijn Zall is actually my boyfriend. I met him on the tennis court a couple of years ago and we grew together and now we’re girlfriend and boyfriend. We have a sharp line between the home situation and the work situation. If my physical trainer is training me, then he’s the boss. And then you know, in the home situation it’s maybe different and I’m the boss or maybe he’s the boss - sometimes.

Question:
When you became paraplegic you were eight. Do you remember much about that?

Esther Vergeer:
It was 22 years ago when I got disabled. I was eight when I got a surgery accident. I have to admit that I don’t recall what exactly happened or how I exactly felt. I do remember vaguely what it was like and of course I can imagine what it does to a girl.  I do remember that it’s a shock for a whole family, if something like that happens.  You know, you have this image of how your child is going to grow up, or how you are going to develop or what you want to be in the future, and all of a sudden, because of a surgery accident, everything changed.  And then you have to readjust and you have to rethink everything and you have to relearn everything.
I think that was the hardest part for me. I was eight when it all happened. Everything that I did was not normal any more.  I couldn’t get dressed the normal way I was used to, I couldn’t play soccer the way I was used to, I couldn’t go out for sleepovers with friends the way I used to. I had to relearn all those things.
I think because of sport, I relearned very quickly and I realised what I could and what I couldn’t do, and I wasn’t worried about the things that I couldn’t do any more and I was only focused on the things that I could do and I think that has saved my life.
Or, or at least, saved the way that I saw myself.  And I think that’s the most important thing in a person’s life: the way you see yourself.  Because then, if you see that in a positive way, you can develop yourself and you can be part of society in a positive way.

Question:
Have you had a lot of support from your family in your life?  

Esther Vergeer:
In the beginning, I didn’t even plan to become an athlete. I was eight years old.  I became paralysed and I had to rebuild my life again.  And because of sport, it was a way for me to accept that and to give the wheelchair a place in my life and I think my, my family were a big support for that. Not only my parents, but also my brother and my friends at school.  They brought me to the training sessions, they drove me to the  tournaments. They were very supportive and without them there was no way I could develop myself as an athlete.

Question:
You were very successful at wheelchair basketball, you played in the Dutch European Championship team. Why did you change to tennis?

Esther Vergeer:
Basketball was one of the sports that I could join right after I got out of the rehabilitation centre and there was a team close by my house and I enjoyed the fact that I was in a team. But at the same time, I was playing tennis for recreation. Then all of a sudden the national coach of tennis saw me playing and said ‘you have talent for tennis, maybe you should focus on that’.  
I became European Champion with the national basketball team in ’97, but then in ’98 I had to choose between tennis and basketball, because I was going to university and it was just too much playing both sports at 100%.  I put the pros and cons on paper for basketball and tennis and the outcome was that there was more of a challenge for me in tennis than there was in basketball.
I think, you know, another reason for that was that I think I am more of an individual athlete than a team athlete.  The focus in tennis is on going my own way and making my own plan, so I’m the one to blame and I’m the one that can celebrate a success, I just love that.

Question:
Did you have a role model?

Esther Vergeer:
I was not the girl that had posters all over her room with people that I admire, but there was one lady in wheelchair tennis who actually also played basketball that I really enjoyed and she won a gold medal in Atlanta. She was very open-minded, very approachable, so I could talk to her. Her name is Maaike Smit, and I still see her. She is a hero for me.  And I believe that I saw Steffi Graf as one of my role models in able-bodied tennis, not specifically focused on tennis, but her as an athlete and how she approached the media and talked on television.

Question:
You have had an amazing unbeaten run in singles?

Esther Vergeer:
I played a couple of tournaments in Florida not long ago, so my unbeaten record is now 452 matches.

Question:
Do you even remember the last match you lost?

Esther Vergeer:
I do remember a little bit about the match. It was in January 2003 during the Sydney International and I played Daniella Detoro. She is an Australian and was used to the sun and the wind and I was coming from the winter in Holland, training indoors, and I wasn’t prepared.  I played her in the first round and she just totally overpowered me.  

Question:
Does this long run make you more confident or nervous?

Esther Vergeer:
Sometimes this streak gives me a lot of confidence and sometimes a lot of pressure.  A lot of pressure on the shoulders that everybody expects me to win and everybody is saying to me ‘we’re just going to buy tickets for the final because you’ll be in the final anyway’.
Sometimes I get very insecure about the fact that the day that I’m going to lose is going to come; who is going to beat me, and where is it going to happen and how is it going to happen. I ask myself those questions. Maybe I don’t have a good day or maybe the person that I’m playing against has a good day.
But on the other side, there’s also the fact that they need the mental ability to overcome the barrier to become – ‘the one that is going to beat Esther’ - so there are different sides to the streak.

Question:
Can you explain why you have been so dominant in your sport for so long?

Esther Vergeer:
It’s a combination. Determination, because a long time ago [I decided] that I really wanted to become No 1 in the world. I’ve built up this team around me that help me to be the best I can be.  I think basketball helped so that my mobility on court is very good, if you compare that with other girls, and maybe I am stronger and faster in my chair, so I can get to more balls.  
And then I guess mental toughness. If I’m on the tennis court [my opponent] doesn’t see if I’m happy or if I’m unhappy, if I have confidence or if I don’t have confidence. I think that’s a strength that I have.

Question:
No emotion, like Bjorn Borg?

Esther Vergeer:
I don’t know if I’m Bjorn Borg, but, yes, I think the mental aspect is a big issue.

Question:
You are a three-time Paralympic champion. How confident are you that you can win a fourth Paralympic gold medal in London?

Esther Vergeer:
The Paralympic Games are just around the corner. The only goal that I have there is of course winning gold and I feel pressure, but I also feel very excited. I am so much looking forward to playing there and having family and friends over to watch.  
It’s going to be an exciting time. It’s going to be stressful, I’m sure. But at the same time, I feel very confident and very powerful. I have this new chair that I developed, which I feel very confident in.  I trained very hard this winter on specific things and I know that I have tactical aspects that maybe not everybody knows yet and I know I can pull that out and maybe surprise my opponents. So I’m very confident that I’m able to win that gold medal.

Question:
Do you have one particular special moment that you can tell us about from one of your previous Paralympic Games?

Esther Vergeer:
Probably the match point against me in Beijing 2008. I was on this winning streak and everybody was talking about when I was going to lose. And I told myself over and over that I would not mind losing in any of the tournaments during that year,
but I did not want to lose during the Paralympic Games. And then all of a sudden, I had match point against me - just one ball away from losing that gold medal. That was the most scary moment in my Paralympic Games experiences.
During that 20 seconds, I was thinking about the media, how would they react, or would my opponent cry, would I cry, would my family cry?  What would my mum and dad think? And then being able to focus back on my serve and where do I want it in the service box and being able to pull it out and turn the whole match around and win a gold medal. That’s probably one of the most valuable moments in my career.

Question:
In the tennis world you have Grand Slams, you have World Cups, so where do you place the Paralympics in your career?

Esther Vergeer:
I think the Paralympic Games are the highest-ranked event in wheelchair sports or disabled sports at the moment. But as we are included in all the Grand Slams already, I think there is a change going on. I think in the future, like able-bodied tennis, we might see the Grand Slams as the big events, and then the Paralympic Games is going to become one of [those] big events.  But for now it stands out and for now it’s a special event.

Question:
In London you are going to be playing in a new facility at Eton Manor. This must be something that you feel is a good development?

Esther Vergeer:
It’s great for us to have a special build venue for the Paralympic Games. A lot of venues are not used any more after Paralympic or Olympic Games. For this specific tennis centre, it’s great and awesome that they’re going to use it for wheelchair tennis [afterwards]. We need to make the sport bigger.  We need more people to be involved in wheelchair tennis and I think England is a perfect example of how we can do that and how we can promote wheelchair tennis. You know, have an Olympic Games or a Paralympic Games at the venue, and then afterwards, use it to promote the sport is, I think, the best way to do it.

Question:
Is there a difference when you are competing for your country at the Paralympic Games?

Esther Vergeer:
A Paralympic Games has a whole different atmosphere to individual tournaments.  You know you are going to be part of the whole national Dutch team and going to the Olympic village and you know being all orange has a very special impact for me.  
In Beijing I was the flag-bearer, I could take the flag into the stadium. You know in the stadiums you see the spectators all in orange and it has a different feel.

Question:
If you win another gold medal, you will be a strong contender to win a third Laureus Disability Award?

Esther Vergeer:
I’ve won the Laureus Award twice, in 2002 and 2008, and I think this is one of the most special awards there is, because it’s chosen by former top athletes.  They know what it takes and they know what it is like to be an athlete. I was very honoured and if I read the list of Academy Members and that they even know my name was already something that made me proud. I’ve won it twice, it’s a dream to maybe even be nominated again, or maybe to even win for a third time. I can only hope that good results, maybe hopefully in the Paralympic Games, will put me up for another nomination.  

Question:
The only other woman to have won three Laureus Awards is tennis player Serena Williams.

Esther Vergeer:
To compete with Serena?  Well, if I can compete with Serena, that would be awesome, because there is no other way I can compete with her, so that would be funny.  

Question:
This year you were beaten for the Disability Award by Oscar Pistorius. What did he achieve last year?

Esther Vergeer:
This year I was beaten by Oscar Pistorius. And you know, I admire him so much, because he is the one that fights for the same thing that I fight for, to get the gap smaller between disabled sports and able-bodied sports. I think the way he
does that, by just running fast and not making a big issue about it, makes him so powerful.  Not only his personality, but the way he talks about it and the way he treats people and gets kids involved is amazing. So I admire him for what he does and how many people he reaches by just being himself and just with passion.
I got the opportunity to talk to him during the Laureus Awards Ceremony [in London in February] and the passion that he has for his sport and the love that he has for his sport is unbelievable. He is awesome.  He’s great.

Question:
You’re 30 now. Do you have ideas about when you might stop, or do you still love it?

Esther Vergeer:
There are a lot of times that I think about the career after tennis.  I have my Esther Vergeer Foundation, which organises sports clinics for kids with disabilities.  I have a commercial team of Paralympic athletes, that I manage.  I also do a lot of public speaking, which I totally love.  I love coaching and then maybe more the business coaching. So there’s a lot of possibilities that I have and a lot of ambitions.
A lot of people ask me when are you going to retire and I talk with former athletes and they all say you’ve got to do it as long as you can, because this is one of the most beautiful and great lives that you can live. So I’m not saying that I’m going to quit right after the Paralympic Games.  I’m not going to say that I’m going to go to Rio de Janeiro for the Paralympic Games in 2016, but it will be somewhere in between then. If it’s time for me to retire, I’ll probably feel it and I’ll probably know it when the time is there.

Question:
You are an Ambassador for Laureus in the Netherlands. Why do you support Laureus?

Esther Vergeer:
Laureus is one of my main foundations. I became an Ambassador because Laureus have children as the main factor for how they can help society and help them with sports, like my foundation, which also helps kids with disability to develop themselves and gives them a little bit of extra support to become part of society. It is the exact same thing that Laureus does on a way bigger scale, an international scale. But I’m convinced that sports can help kids in their development and especially kids with disability or kids who have to grow up in disadvantaged areas. They need the support and Laureus can give that support through sports.

Question:
When you were in London in February for the Awards Ceremony, you went to a demonstration of the work of the Laureus Foundation at Millwall football ground. What did you think of that?

Esther Vergeer:
It was the first time that I was introduced to one of the projects of Laureus International and the projects that they do in England with football, boxing and basketball. I was amazed and impressed by how they do that. There were a lot of Laureus Academy Members, but also the people that actually run the projects were there. They have love for the kids and they have love for the sports and it gave me goose bumps to see with how much passion they want those children to be successful and the way they want the children to develop themselves and express themselves is unbelievable. It was an eye-opener for me and I was seriously emotional seeing that. I can only hope that we can have and we can build such projects here in the Netherlands as well.
 
For the video of the Interview please visit Laureus Digital Video Archive here