Paralympics: why Esther Vergeer still fears the favourite tag

By Elizabeth HudsonBBC Sport

Among the many stars on show on Wimbledon's carefully manicured lawns is a woman who is the world's most dominant athlete.

Dutch wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer last experienced singles defeat in January 2003 and since then she has won her last 457 matches, racking up a host of titles all over the world, including victories at Roland Garros, Melbourne and Flushing Meadows, as well as two more Paralympic gold medals to add to the one she won in Sydney in 2000.

The 30-year-old will head to the London Paralympics as favourite to win yet another gold medal and extend one of the most amazing winning streaks in sport.

Vergeer's singles record will remain intact at Wimbledon with only wheelchair doubles events on the agenda from Friday to Sunday but as she approaches London 2012, she admits that the tag of favourite does not always sit comfortably with her.

"I don't want to call it doubts but I do feel the pressure. Sometimes I start to get scared not to lose and I have to get rid of that," she told BBC Sport.

"My mom and dad asked me about how I go into these Games compared to other Games and I think there is a different pressure on me. I've won so many matches - a lot in two sets - and everyone is expecting me to win gold and it makes it more difficult and puts me under more pressure.

"I'm trying not to think of the exact number of my winning streak or counting the games but the fact that I can look back on all of the matches that I have won gives me confidence that I can win in September."

Vergeer was left paralysed after an operation on her spinal cord when she was aged just eight and while tennis was part of her rehabilitation, so was wheelchair basketball and she helped the Dutch women's team to victory in the 1997 European Championships before concentrating on tennis.

The last woman to beat Vergeer was Australian Daniela Di Toro who claimed a straight sets win in the quarter-finals of the Sydney International in 2003. A week later Vergeer turned the tables on her way to winning the Australian Open in Melbourne and from then on she has proved to be the toughest of opponents.

The closest she has come to losing in recent times was in the 2008 Paralympic final against her now-retired compatriot Korie Homan where she faced a match point before winning 6-2 4-6 7-6 (7-5).

Despite her position at the top of the world rankings, Vergeer constantly strives for improvement in her game, whether it is trying out the Eton Manor venue which will host the 2012 competition, or trying to perfect her already impressive game with coach Sven Groeneveld - who previously worked with the likes of Roger Federer and Monica Seles - or helping to work on developing a new tennis chair which she gave a first outing to earlier this year.

And she believes that is what helps to keep her ahead of her rivals.

"I know that I work hard and I try to improve something about my game every time I go on court and I think that makes a difference," she said. "But then again, I train with my competitors and I see the gap closing and that makes it more challenging but it makes me more eager to work harder to try new things.

"I am beatable but I know it is difficult and not only about the tennis aspect but about the mental aspect too. I have weaknesses and I have some tactics that I think I would use if I had to play myself. The day I am going to be beaten is going to come - the only question is when will that be and who will it be."

That attention to detail was evident when she competed recently at Eton Manor in the only tournament being played at the event before the Paralympic tennis competition.

Vergeer was the star attraction and beat the bone-chilling weather to beat British number one Jordanne Whiley in straight sets in the final.

Results were not the priority but finding out about the venue where she will be aiming to win a fourth Paralympic gold medal was definitely on the agenda.

"I wanted to see the layout and the facilities and also have a hit on Centre Court and see what it feels and looks like and how the ball bounces on the surface," she said

"Although it is an advantage for me because I like to know where I will play and hang out and see it in my mind, I don't know if it will put me at an advantage over my competitors when it comes to September. Maybe it isn't as important for other people."

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