Photo: Gregory PicoutAniek van Koot (NED)
In the annals of wheelchair tennis, the first two months of 2013 will stand out in the context of the women’s game.
On 28 January 2013, after winning her first Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open, Aniek van Koot became the women’s world No. 1 ranked player, ending Esther Vergeer’s sequence of 640 successive weeks occupying the top spot since October 2000. Two weeks later Vergeer announced her retirement from the sport she had dominated for over a decade, signalling the start of a new era for women’s wheelchair tennis, which begins with van Koot leading the way.
Van Koot’s ascendancy to succeeding Vergeer as world No. 1 has been built on 13 years of working towards becoming one of the world’s best wheelchair tennis players – a journey that saw van Koot being the last opponent Vergeer faced in a competitive match, when the 22-year-old Arnhem-based athlete won silver in the women’s singles at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. She was also the last player to take a set of tennis off Vergeer, in the final of the 2012 Pensacola Open.
Born with her right leg shorter than her left, van Koot eventually had to have her right leg amputated after surgeries to extend its length were unsuccessful. She started playing wheelchair tennis at the age of 10.
“I got into wheelchair tennis when my mum saw a documentary on TV about Aad Zwaan and his players,” says Van Koot. “I always loved tennis and also my parents both worked in a tennis school, so soon afterwards we went to meet with Aad, and I'm still training with him 13 years later. I never tried any other sports, I knew that tennis was my thing. I loved it, and still do.”
Van Koot became junior world No. 1 in 2007 at the age of 17 and has helped the Netherlands to win both the World Team Cup junior and women’s titles. She was a member of the Dutch team that won the women’s title for the 25th time at the 2012 BNP Paribas World Team Cup in Seoul, Korea.
Van Koot’s breakthrough year arguably came in 2011, the year in which she won her first ITF Super Series title at the BNP Paribas French Open in Paris, and she went on to reach the final of the 2011 NEC Masters to propel herself to the world No. 2 ranking for the first time. She stayed there until climbing into top spot at the end of January this year.
However, like with many world class athletes, van Koot’s progress to becoming the latest in a long line of Dutch women to rank at world No. 1 has had its darker times.
“I’ve experienced some tough times, just like other sports people,” she says. “I remember people saying that I was too fat for a top athlete. That really hurt, especially when I was only 16-years-old. Nowadays my focus is on healthy nutrition and physical training. I've also experienced home sickness. And trust me, that's the worst! It happened to me when I was in Seoul, Korea in 2012. Luckily there was internet and Skype!”
The fact that she is Dutch and that her country has such a long history of success in women’s wheelchair tennis is something that van Koot understands, too, since, for the last 13 years, she has been coached by Zwaan, a man who has had such a big impact on the success of Dutch players, both male and female, over many years.
“You can look at it at both ways. They (fellow top Dutch players) are a help, but also a pressure,” Van Koot says. “In 2008 I was world No. 8, but not good enough for the Netherlands to compete in the Paralympics. But I enjoy training with them all and you can always learn from someone else!”
Van Koot is well placed to appreciate that the biggest threat to her world No. 1 ranking most likely comes from her fellow countrywomen. In November 2012 she missed out on winning her fist NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters title after being beaten by current world No. 4 Jiske Griffioen, a close friend and the player that van Koot partnered to win the Wimbledon women’s doubles title in 2012. They defeated Vergeer and Marjolein Bius in the semi-finals before the duo became doubles silver medallists behind Vergeer and Buis at London 2012.
In Vergeer’s wake, women’s wheelchair tennis is now more open than for many a year and there are numerous other players out there challenging the Dutch, as van Koot found out when she bowed out of this year’s Pensacola Open in the first round against Japanese world No. 11 Yui Kamiji.
However, van Koot’s successful defence of her Cajun Classic over the weekend strengthens her place at the top of the rankings and she is happy to live by words to inspire not just herself, but other women out there aiming to be the best that they can be, whether it be as a wheelchair tennis player or in life in general.
“Embrace yourself, love yourself and keep pushing yourself,” she says. “The world is at your feet, you only have to realise it. If you want to change things, then you have to be willing to be uncomfortable at times.”