Dutch wheelchair tennis champion Diede de Groot is so dominant within her sport that she’s capable of literary alchemy – she transmutes hyperbole into fact. For example, although de Groot enters this year’s US Open as the tournament’s five-time reigning champion, it might be more accurate to describe her as the reigning “everything” champion. She’s won every singles tournament she’s entered this year – just as she did in 2022.
In fact, de Groot hasn’t lost a singles match since February 2021, a streak that stretched to 111 matches (and counting) after her victory in last month’s Wimbledon final. During that span, she’s won 12 consecutive grand slam tournaments, along with gold medals at the Paralympics and the European Para Championships. And, if she wins the US Open again in the coming days, de Groot will secure her third consecutive calendar-year grand slam.
Such relentless success encourages comparison with the most respected figures in the history of tennis. De Groot’s career total of 19 grand slam singles titles still falls short of the likes of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic but, given that de Groot is still only 26, she has plenty of time to catch up.
The comparison to Williams is especially apt. Like Williams, de Groot’s doubles tennis résumé is extraordinary, if slightly less flawless than her recent singles record. Indeed, writing out de Groot’s accomplishments in doubles tennis so soon after reciting her singles tennis achievements can seem like a copy-and-paste error. To date, de Groot has won 17 grand slam doubles titles (including a calendar year grand slam in 2019) and is a reigning doubles champion in the Paralympics, the European Para Championships, and in three of the four grand slams.
Although statistics support analyzing the Dutchwoman’s career alongside Williams’s, de Groot herself evades questions on the subject when speaking with the Guardian. She converts a question about similarities with the American into a series of thoughtful observations around the difficulties of sustained success.
“I think it’s one thing to get [to the top of the sport],” she says. “But to do it for many years in a row has been more difficult … It takes so much more discipline, strength and energy to keep it up … When I wasn’t No 1, the goals were really simple: like, I needed to get a better forehand, for example. Now, because I’m there … [the motivation] has to come from within, and that’s what I’m so proud of. I always find these little things to work on.”
De Groot also credits her continuous capacity for improvement to her years-long rivalry with world No 2 Yui Kamiji of Japan. Kamiji, herself a 27-time major champion (combined singles and doubles), is the last person to defeat de Groot in a singles match. Additionally, although both de Groot and Kamiji have played with multiple doubles partners this year, Kamiji has been one-half of a tandem that’s defeated de Groot three times in doubles this year, including in the French Open final.
“She’s been training in this style that’s very difficult for me to play against,” de Groot says of Kamiji. “We really push each other … It’s been a great rivalry.”
De Groot’s game is also helped by the quality of her training partners back home in the Netherlands – put simply, Dutch players dominate wheelchair tennis. The nation’s success in the women’s game, specifically, has been comprehensive – Dutch women have won every gold medal in the history of women’s wheelchair tennis at the Paralympics, and have similarly dominated the professional wheelchair tennis tour’s end-of-year tournament. De Groot says that there’s something synergetic about the Dutch national teams’ collaborative training structure.
“We really work together as a whole team,” she says. “For example, I train with the men, the women and even the juniors … We see each other throughout the whole week and we travel together, so we’re really like a tight team in this [otherwise] individual sport … We make each other better every day, and I think it shows in the results.”
One might speculate that the Netherlands’ success in wheelchair tennis is a consequence of high participation rates – ie, owing to the country’s proven record of success, tennis attracts a greater percentage of Dutch wheelchair athletes than other sports. De Groot, however, says that this is not the case.
“I actually think [Dutch tennis programs] have been losing participants,” de Groot says. “We used to have this very big flow of young talent who would come through and learn from the national players. Nowadays, there’s less of those players. We’re trying to fix this actually. We see very big growth [in wheelchair participation] in athletics and basketball … but we seem to lose them a little with tennis.”
When asked what she deems to be wheelchair tennis’s strongest selling point to young would-be athletes, de Groot draws attention to the ease with which one can integrate wheelchair tennis with other forms of the game.
“The only difference is that we have two bounces [before a point is over in wheelchair tennis]. So, you can play with anyone. You can play with wheelchair players, but you can also play with able-bodied players,” she says. “There’s even competitions like this. We have mixed teams where you have a wheelchair tennis player and able-bodied tennis player together playing against a [similarly constructed doubles] team, or even competitions where it’s two wheelchair players against two able-bodied players.
De Groot even envisions using mixed-play exhibition doubles matches as a way to fuel interest in the wheelchair game.
“I think if we were to play with, for example, me, Serena, Yui [Kamiji] and Venus [Williams], people would be like, ‘We want to watch because we want to see Serena.’ But then, at the same time, they’re seeing us … It would be good to get that lift from [the Williams sisters] because they have the numbers, we have the fun.”
Which brings the conversation back to de Groot and how her career relates to that of someone like a Serena Williams. De Groot laughs when attention is drawn to her efforts to dodge such comparisons earlier in the conversation.
“I would never compare myself [to Williams],” says de Groot. “The way she’s fought through so many things. I’m a huge fan and I think, in my own way, I’m trying to do the same thing … but I think it’s at a much lower scale.”
De Groot’s humility might not allow her to make such comparisons, but the numbers are inarguable – she’s already won more grand slam titles than Williams had done by the same age. If de Groot’s winning ways continue it’s a comparison that will become increasingly frequent, as well as increasingly difficult to avoid.