Have you heard the story of Esther Vergeer?
With a 470-match winning streak she is arguably the most successful individual athlete to perform in any sport. The Dutch wheelchair player retired this year unbeaten to open up the sport to competitors who were never good enough to beat her.
One of those rivals was England’s Lucy Shuker who took part in the Wheelchair doubles tournament at Wimbledon on Friday.
She and her partner Marjolein Buis were knocked out in the semi-finals, but Shuker was happy to talk about her growing sport with Al Jazeera English.
The government in Holland give disabled people a sports wheelchair so it enables people with disabilities to get into sport without funding it themselves
“Esther was unbeaten the whole time I played tennis – she was a phenomenal player and athlete. The psychological aspect of never being beaten is incredible but she wanted to have a family and demands are high in our sport,” says Shuker.
Surely her rivals were celebrating when she departed?
“It’s the end of an era, the beginning of another one. There is a German world number one now and I think inside the top 10 everyone has beaten everyone. It’s very mixed at the moment with Brits, Japanese, German, Dutch. It’s quite exciting.”
The profile of wheelchair tennis was raised by the success of the London 2012 Paralympics.
“There is definitely more interest in the news and I’ve had numerous emails to my website from people asking how to get involved in wheelchair tennis. That’s fantastic, it’s hard when you don’t know where to start.”
The Dutch topped the medal table at London 2012, and their success is continuing at Wimbledon. In fact, half of the finalists hail from the Netherlands. I ask Shuker why this is.
“The government in Holland give disabled people a sports wheelchair so it enables people with disabilities to get into sport without funding it themselves. They cost around $5,000 to $6,000 and that’s a lot of money for us. In the UK there are charities to write to but it’s not a given you’ll get one.”
“Holland is a small country and they have a centralised training base. They train together so the men will hit with the women which obviously raises their game. The nation has had expertise for many years which is fantastic.”
The Wimbledon tournament is very short for the wheelchair athletes with only four teams competing, and no singles. It has been taking place at the All England club for years but there’s a good reason for the short format.
“The grass court isn’t ideal for wheelchair tennis – so it’s being integrated with this grand slam with the doubles first. As chair technology improves, we should start to see a singles draw and a bigger number of entrants.”
Away from Wimbledon, Shuker and her wheelchair rivals have just as busy seasons as the able-bodied tennis players.
“We are in all the grand slams, the others have singles and doubles. We have tournaments every week of the year ranging from grand slams to super series, IGF 1,2,3 and Futures – which are aimed at beginners. I do around 20-25 tournaments a year.”
Obviously with the huge popularity of football, rugby and cricket – wheelchair tennis has a long way to go until it is a mainstream sport. In fact, all Paralympic sports face an uphill battle. But anyone lucky enough to see a wheelchair tennis match will know that it is an incredibly entertaining game. And the fitness and skill of its competitors are not to be underestimated.
“I think wheelchair tennis is fantastic to play and fantastic to watch. The more we can grow the sport around the world, the better. South Africa has a massive development programme going on and they’ve produced some fantastic players.”
“It’s good that it’s reaching countries that you wouldn’t otherwise think it would, especially ones that are deprived and a bit more poverty stricken.”
While Shuker looks forward to competing at Rio – the real test will be seen in the years inbetween. Whether the legacy left by London leads to more people taking up and watching the sport Shuker and others dedicate their lives to.
Joanna Tilley is a freelance journalist working with Al Jazeera on the Sport website and reporting from the Wimbledon Championships.
Follow her on Twitter (@joannatilley) or her website, http://mythoughtonsport.blogspot.com
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