The UConn women went for their 89th straight victory last night when they squared off against Florida State. With their win, they passed John Wooden’s famous UCLA men’s teams of the 1970s that put together the 88-game win streak that served as the gold standard in college basketball before Geno Auriemma’s women began their run. Yet neither of these two teams have the greatest winning streak in sports history.
So who is in the driver’s seat for that title? There have been some incredible teams and individuals over the years that have put together stretches of dominance unrivaled in their own sport. Penn State’s women’s volleyball team, until their defeat by Stanford last September, won 109 consecutive matches. Japanese freestyle wrestler Osamu Watanabe finished his three-year run with the 1964 Olympic gold medal, winning all 186 matches during his career and becoming the only wrestler in modern Olympic history with an unblemished record. Likewise Cael Sanderson of Iowa State put together a 159-match streak and finished as the only NCAA wrestler to go his entire college career without a loss.
There’s the run by the University of Miami’s men’s tennis team, in which they won 137 matches from 1957 to 1964. And on the opposite side of the country, Concord, California’s De La Salle High School went 12 years and 151 games without a loss or a tie. But for the longest time, the gold standard for winning streaks was set by Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan. Khan, now the president of the World Squash Federation, had a five-year run during the 1980s where he won 555 consecutive matches; no other athlete in history has won as many consecutive competitions.
All of these accomplishments are astounding in their own field. But there is one record that rises above the rest, and continues to grow and grow as the years continue. And yet… even the most diehard of sports fans would have a hard time picking her out of a lineup, or even recognizing her on the street as an athlete.
But with a streak that is nearly eight years long and counting, Dutch wheelchair tennis starlet Esther Vergeer has persevered from a spinal cord surgery at 8 years old which rendered her paraplegic to dominate the tennis courts like no other. She came to the courts after first taking up wheelchair basketball, excelling there to the point where she won the 1997 European championship as part of the Dutch national team. The sport has seen an impressive array of female greats — Suzanne Lenglen and Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf and the Williams sisters. Yet all of them were susceptible to the odd loss every once in a while. Vergeer, meanwhile, just keeps winning and winning and winning. Not since Daniele Di Toro defeated her on January 30, 2003 in Sydney has Vergeer tasted the acrid bitterness of losing.
No matter the surface, Vergeer has known nothing but victory when she hits the court. Heading into next month’s Australian Open, the Dutchwoman is at 401 straight singles victories and counting. During that streak, further, Vergeer went over two years (from August 2004 to October 2006) without losing a single set — a stretch of 250 sets in which she was pushed to a thirteenth-game tiebreaker but once. Vergeer has won every Grand Slam tournament in which she’s competed in singles and all but her first (the 2002 Australian Open) in doubles. She’s taken seven singles and six doubles titles on the hard courts of Melbourne, all four editions of the French Open wheelchair tournament in both singles and doubles, both of the Wimbledon doubles tournaments held on the lawns of the All-England Club, and all five editions of the U.S. Open for both singles and doubles.
Her 33 total Grand Slam titles, at just 29 years old and in a discipline where the Slams have often failed to offer a bracket, put her seventh all-time amongst female Grand Slam winners — and all those above her also had the benefit of mixed doubles to bolster their totals. Take those mixed-gender matches out of the equation, and Vergeer is second to just Navratilova and Court in Grand Slam titles.
And at 29, she’s got plenty of time to surpass both women. With seven opportunities a season — Wimbledon hosts just wheelchairs doubles in order to maintain the integrity of their lawns – Vergeer needs just a few more years to catch up to the only two females with more Grand Slam titles. Should she keep up her current torrid pace of wins, she will overtake Court by the 2012 French Open. Navratilova would be passed with singles and doubles titles in the 2013 Australian Open. And barring an upset defeat, at the hands of Di Toro or someone else, she will string together enough wins to pass Jahangir Khan’s mark of 555 straight wins for the greatest string of victories in any sport in the history of modern sport.
So congrats to the women of Connecticut, all those Auriemma recruits who have put together their 89 straight – but they’ll need another decade or more of unblemished dominance of the courts to catch the woman with the greatest winning streak in sports history…
TOP TEN FEMALE GRAND SLAM CHAMPIONS(SINGLES AND WOMEN’S DOUBLES)
Billie Jean King
Helen Wills Moody
Margaret Osborne duPont
Louise Brough Clapp