When Esther Vergeer started playing wheelchair tennis in 1999 it was a growing niche in the tennis community. The relentlessness of her winning dovetailed with an era of growth for the game, and when she retired Tuesday she had attained a level of international respect both rare and well-earned.
"I've had such a crazy career," said Vergeer at a Rotterdam tournament, where she made her announcement. "I can't get anything else to add to this. The circle is complete."
Vergeer, whose arms are long and roped with muscle, last lost in January 2003. She was the ITF's Wheelchair World Champion for 13 years and her winning streak will stand at 470 matches. She won 148 singles titles and four Paralympic gold medals in singles.
"Imagine not losing a match in 10 years," said former player and analyst Pam Shriver, reached by phone after Vergeer's announcement. "People in the game, you can't relate to it. Imagine not losing in 10 years."
A 31-year-old from the Netherlands, Vergeer lost the use of her legs after surgery on her spinal cord. She started playing wheelchair tennis at a time when it was beginning to be taken seriously. In 2002, the Australian Open began hosting the wheelchair tournament alongside the traditional event, and by 2009 all four majors had included a tournament during their fortnight.
"We view Esther as one of the all-time great athletes in any sport, not just tennis," said U.S. Open tournament director David Brewer, who oversaw the wheelchair tournament that is part of the Grand Slam event.
That opinion is shared by many of the players Vergeer came to know over the years at tournaments and events like the ITF award dinner. That's where Shriver saw her over the years, as Vergeer annually accepted the player of the year award that might as well have had her picture on it.
"Esther is one of those players where everyone in the pro game is aware of what she's done," Shriver said.
Complimentary quotes from Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal and Richard Krajicek adorn Vergeer's website. And Roger Federer contributed a statement to Vergeer's autobiography, which has been timed to coincide with her retirement.
"She is an astonishing athlete, a huge personality, and she has achieved one of the most amazing feats in our sport," wrote Federer.
Whether playing or not, Vergeer will remain a tennis icon.
"I have always admired her accomplishments," Brewer said. "She always was the ultimate pro, the way she went about her craft. She set an example for each of us to learn from in any endeavor not just sports."