(Esther) Vergeer, in a way, almost made it look too easy to win. You might wonder: If her opponents were only getting 1.4 games per set, how hard could it have been for her? The answer is that her achievement was different from that of athletes who learn from their losses or take years to reach their potential. Anyone who has ever played a sport, especially an individual sport, knows that there’s nothing more nerve-wracking than trying to beat someone you’re supposed to beat. Vergeer faced those nerves every time she played, for 10 years, and never succumbed to them. That’s the real meaning of 470.

Tennis meant more from the start to Vergeer than it does to most of its able-bodied players — it gave her a life back. She was paralyzed after a spinal surgery at age 8 went wrong. “In the beginning, it was hard,” she said. But tennis, which she took up at 12, “made me realize that the world doesn’t end.”

In this, and in what she achieved, Vergeer is more than just a tennis player. The sport should be proud of her, but in this case it should also be proud of itself. Wheelchair tennis began in California in the 1970s; few then would have believed that, three decades later, one of its players from the Netherlands would make the cover of a magazine dedicated to what the body can do, rather than what it can’t. Few then would have thought that a disabled tennis player could put herself in the conversation for “most dominant athlete of all time.” Esther Vergeer was (even) more than a number.

( Esther Vergeer: More than a number )