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Wheelchair ace bares body and soul

By Greg Duke, CNN
  • Esther Vergeer is arguably the greatest woman athlete in the world at the moment
  • The 29-year-old Dutchwoman is unbeaten since 2003 in the sport of wheelchair tennis
  • Vergeer has recently been photographed naked on the cover of an American magazine
  • She hopes the photos show how people with different bodies can succeed in sport

(CNN) -- "When they first asked me to appear naked in the magazine, I wasn't sure about accepting."

Not the words you would expect to hear from one of the world's top sportswomen, especially one who has been in a wheelchair since the age of eight following an operation on a spinal defect.

But Esther Vergeer is no ordinary sportswoman. The 29-year-old is one of the most dominant athletes in the world -- yet she remains virtually unknown outside her own particular sport.

Considering Vergeer has not lost a tennis match since 2003, a mind-blowing run of 396 consecutive wins, it seems strange that the Dutchwoman is now making headlines for events off the court, rather than for her achievements on it.

However, her recent naked appearance on the cover of ESPN Magazine's 2010 "Body Issue" publication, with a strategically-placed tennis racket hiding her modesty, has suddenly propelled her into the public eye.

Vergeer is the most dominant player wheelchair tennis has ever seen, yet her inclusion in a magazine which sees prominent athletes bare their bodies has created as many headlines as anything she has achieved in her illustrious career.

"I wasn't that confident about my body, but they assured me I would have the final say on what photos were published and the photographer made me feel at ease," Vergeer told CNN.

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"I just think it's really cool that they wanted to put a disabled athlete on their front cover, and I am very happy with the photos.

"I have read on some [Internet] chatrooms and forums that a few people think it wasn't appropriate, and I admit I wasn't prepared for those comments. But friends have told me that I should be proud of the photos."

Vergeer's playing statistics make unbelievable reading: Seven Australian Open titles, four French Open titles, five U.S. Open titles, 10 consecutive WTA Tour Championship titles, three successive Paralympic gold medals -- and that is just in singles play.

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She has also won 15 grand slam doubles titles, two Paralympic doubles titles and has twice been named Laureus Sportsperson of the Year With a Disability, in 2002 and 2008.

And such is her dominance in the sport that since taking over the No. 1 ranking on a permanent basis as a 19-year-old, she has never looked remotely close to relinquishing that position.

All impressive reading, but does it bother Vergeer that she is now attracting headlines for something away from her tennis achievements?

"You know, sometimes, as a disabled athlete, you must think outside the box. I realize that doing the shoot was 'an edgy' thing to do but I didn't do the photos just to raise awareness of disabled sport -- the profile of disabled sport has risen so much in recent years anyway," she said.

"The aim of the magazine is to show how different types of bodies can perform well in sport and I hope that my photos will get that message across."

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"Body Issue" editor-in-chief Gary Belsky told CNN that he is delighted with Vergeer's pictures and the reaction they have received.

"One of our goals is to look at different physical specimens and show how they can achieve sporting greatness," Belsky said.

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--Esther Vergeer

"We were interested in featuring a disabled athlete, and Esther immediately appealed to us because she is beautiful, has an amazing body and is at the very top of her sport.

"My role as editor is to try to entertain and educate our readers. With regards to Esther, we are entertaining them by showing how amazing her body is and the fact that she has great upper-body strength.

"And we are educating them by showing that being disabled is no handicap to being a world-class athlete.

"We have had a great response from the public about Esther's photos and when we saw them, we knew one had to be on the front cover."

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U.S. Open Wheelchair tournament director David Schobel also believes Vergeer's photos can only have a positive effect.

"To have Esther featured on the cover of a magazine like ESPN allows people to see that athletes with disabilities are just like the athletes we are used to seeing in everyday media," Schobel told CNN.

"They may have a disability, but that does not keep them from competing with the best in the world. By having her on the cover we can only hope that it will open more opportunities for people to watch the sport and follow her as she continues her winning streak."

In her own words, Vergeer has a "wonderful life" and receives the utmost respect from her able-bodied fellow professionals, many of whom she has met.

World number two Roger Federer told CNN that he believes Vergeer's achievements deserve the maximum recognition.

"I think what Esther has accomplished is absolutely amazing. She hasn't lost a match since 2003 and has gone on an incredible streak, which is impossible to imagine me being able to do," said 16-time grand slam winner Federer, whose best winning streak is 41 matches.

"Obviously there is also an argument that she is one of the greatest athletes in the world at the moment."