04 Apr 2018

The UNIQLO Interview: Sven Groeneveld

News Article

Photo: Instagram Sven GroeneveldSven Groeneveld and Esther Vergeer at the US Open

UNIQLO LogoFor the latest UNIQLO Interview we spoke to ITF Wheelchair Tennis Ambassador Sven Groeneveld, who coached wheelchair tennis legend and eight-time Paralympic medallist Esther Vergeer during the latter years of the 13-time ITF Wheelchair Tennis World Champion's playing career.

Groeneveld started working with Vergeer towards the end of 2009, but it was one of Vergeer's predecessors in a long line of world No.1-ranked Dutch women’s players and multiple Paralympic gold medallists that first introduced him to the world of wheelchair tennis. 

“I became aware of wheelchair tennis very early in my life due to the very unfortunate reason of having fellow Dutch tennis player Chantal Vandierendonck becoming paraplegic. After her car accident she ended up turning her disability into an ability to succeed and to strive in the world of wheelchair tennis,” says Groeneveld.

“In addition a good friend of mine, Marc Kalkman, was a global leader in wheelchair tennis coaching. I always followed him during my advancement in the able-bodied professional tour as a coach. I was always impressed with his work (results) and he inspired me with his dedication to wheelchair tennis.”

Kalkman also played a significant role in Groeneveld and Vergeer joining forces, establishing a partnership between a much-celebrated and highly successful ATP World Tour and WTA Tour coach - who has worked with the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, to name but a few - and the most successful wheelchair tennis player of all time.

“Somewhere in mid-2009, Marc Kalkman asked me if I would be interested in having a chat with Esther Vergeer about her tennis. She had just won her third gold medal at three consecutive Paralympic Games (singles) and she was in two minds about her goals and if she should continue her journey as a professional player. As it turned out we connected and shared some common goals and ground to give it a chance to work together. We started our journey a little later that year and I was able to spend some quality time with Esther during a three-year period,” said Groeneveld who later became one of six ITF Wheelchair Tennis Ambassadors announced in 2010.

“Before I worked with Esther I had no experience at all in Wheelchair Tennis Coaching and with the help of Esther, Marc and her physical trainer I was able to ask a lot of questions in order to apply my experiences that I gained over the years on the ATP/WTA tours. 

“In the beginning my focus and my nativity was to challenge the disabilities, but in a very short time I realised that it was the opposite and I could really apply the unique abilities Esther possessed.

“My coaching principle has always been ‘make their strength even better and their confidence will take away any weakness’. This really applied to Esther and she showed me and the team her unique ability to strive. The focus was on her and to work on improving her level and not focus on the outcome or the competition,” recalls Groeneveld, whose time working with Vergeer included the landmark of her 400th successive career win in singles competition.

“I had many (challenges) but working with Esther taught me that there was no challenge big enough to overcome.”

Groeneveld and Vergeer’s partnership began the year after Vergeer had won arguably the most memorable match of her career and one that she is most often asked about in interviews – the Beijing 2008 Paralympic women’s singles gold medal match against Korie Homan. At the 2009 NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters, the first tournament Vergeer played with Groeneveld as her coach, Homan was again Vergeer’s opponent in the final.

“I remember my first tournament during the Wheelchair Tennis Masters in Amsterdam in 2009. She was playing the final against her biggest rival at that time, fellow Dutchwoman Korie Homan. 

“I thought to myself, ‘can you imagine if Esther does not win and she would lose (after being undefeated for over six years at that point)’ Now, normally you would not think of this as a coach, because losing is so much part of the process of growth, but since I was working with Esther it became something I thought of at that first tournament,” says Groeneveld as he recalls his most memorable moment from his time as Vergeer’s coach.

“Also we did receive some media attention due to the unique fact that I had never worked with a Dutch tennis player, let alone a Dutch wheelchair tennis player.

“During the final (which she ended up winning) Esther was close to defeat. She had lost the first 6-2 and the second set it was 5-5 in the tiebreak. Esther showed her inner strength and did not show any fear. She won the tiebreak 7-5 and the third set 6-2. The Masters title was hers for the 12th consecutive year.

“That was the moment I will never forget and that showed me her legendary ability to focus and to have no fear. This is a quality that I rarely found and had only seen with the legends in our game of tennis and I must admit I have only seen it in one other player I worked with - Roger Federer.”  

While Vergeer is among the players to have continually pushed the boundaries within wheelchair tennis and a combination of evolving wheelchair technology and fitter, faster and stronger players has seen the standard of tennis continually growing, the ‘two-bounces’ allowed in wheelchair tennis is arguably as much of tactical use as it is a necessity nowadays. Groeneveld sees this evolution continuing to take wheelchair tennis to even greater heights.

He says: “The game will always evolve and the two-bounce rule is there to give that extra bit of time for the mobility of the players. I believe as we continue to grow the game and the evolution of the chair and how the athletes adapt to these changes, the game will continue to grow!”

Alongside growth and evolution from a technical tennis aspect, Groeneveld also predicts a wider evolution for the sport in its visibility and profile.

“Since the tour is run by the ITF I know the growth and inclusion of wheelchair tennis is safe, but it needs to continue to expand. 

“I foresee that the future will hold more players competing during the Grand Slam tournaments and will continue to increase the price money. Let’s be honest, this is where we need to get more support from the able-bodied players. 

“Wheelchair tennis has gained momentum due to the support of loyal sponsors like NEC and UNIQLO. Due to this support it gives the players a better chance to make a living out of their sport. 

“Personally I would like to see that more ATP/WTA events will host wheelchair tennis tournaments and I believe that there should be more tournaments like the ATP Tour ABNAMRO WTT (World Tennis Tournament) in Rotterdam! They are setting a very high standard (Esther is the tournament director). 

"However, I believe more and more should have the benefit of hosting a wheelchair tennis tour event during their tournament.”