"I got to travel the world and got to know different cultures. I know what it means to work so hard that you can reach your goals. What it means to be on top of the ranking for two years. How to keep working hard to improve little things. Those lessons have so much value for the rest of my life."
The Dutch women have dominated the women’s singles and doubles for years. But Rio Paralympic champion Jiske Griffioen’s retirement announcement on 24 October means that Netherlands’ hopes of maintaining their Paralympic dominance will rest with her compatriots at Tokyo 2020.
Griffioen decided long ago that Rio 2016 would be her last Games, and she bowed out in style on the Paralympic stage, taking her medal tally to five after finally winning her first two gold medals in four Paralympics as a wheelchair tennis player.
“I dedicated a lot of years to the sport. I still love tennis for sure. But I also want a career after tennis in sport and media. So at a point I had to quit. I heard myself talking when I explained my goals in tennis for the next season, but didn’t feel the fire anymore,” explained Griffioen, who has won 59 singles titles and 106 doubles titles on the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour.
Rio completed a Paralympic journey which began back at Sydney 2000 with wheelchair basketball. The Netherlands finished fourth at those Paralympics, and with Griffioen having already sown the seeds of her wheelchair tennis career she switched to concentrate on wheelchair tennis.
“I was very young when I was selected for the national [wheelchair basketball] team. It was a great experience to attend the Paralympics in Sydney. But I love tennis more. It’s an individual sport and that’s a bigger challenge to me. It all comes down to your own performance,” she said.
The transition from wheelchair basketball to wheelchair tennis to becoming a Paralympic gold medallist is just one of many similarities between Griffioen and compatriot Esther Vergeer, winner of the previous four Paralympic women’s singles gold medals before Rio.
Both also hail from Woerden in central Netherlands, and since Vergeer’s retirement Griffioen is one of two Dutch players, along with her long-time doubles partner Aniek van Koot, to have occupied the women’s singles world No.1 ranking.
Griffioen spent a total of 106 weeks as the world No.1 singles player between June 2015 and July 2017, earning her the year-end No.1 ranking and the title of International Tennis Federation (ITF) World Champion for both 2015 and 2016.
She became world No.1 after winning the second of her four Grand Slam singles titles. Understandably, therefore, she considers the achievement among the most memorable moments of her career, aside from her double-gold medal success in Rio.
“Winning Roland Garros in 2015 and reaching the world No.1 spot was one of my highlights. And winning the first title at Wimbledon was very special. My name will be on top of the list forever, that’s a special feeling,” Griffioen said.
With so many great memories to carry with her through the years ahead, Griffioen believes her life as an athlete puts her in good stead for the future.
“Tennis was my passion. It is great when you can turn your passion into a job. I got to travel the world and got to know different cultures. I know what it means to work so hard that you can reach your goals. What it means to be on top of the ranking for two years. How to keep working hard to improve little things. Those lessons have so much value for the rest of my life. I had a great time on tour and made some friends for life.
“I will miss the training and working together with my team to improve my game. And of course the matches and the feeling after winning. This feeling will be difficult to reach in everyday life.”
With so many titles to her name, Griffioen also said she will miss one part of the world, in particular, and that is the country where she experienced her first Paralympics. By way of coming full circle, in January this year she began her last season on the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour back at Sydney Olympic Park, winning her penultimate Super Series singles title and her last Super Series doubles title at the Apia International Sydney Open.
She then went on to win her last Grand Slam title in the women’s doubles at the Australian Open, the scene of her first singles title at one of the sport’s four majors in 2015.
“I always loved the tour Down Under. I think Australia is a great country and the people love sports. And it’s summer when we come there so that’s a big advantage too,” she says with a smile.
Foundations for the future
As for life after wheelchair tennis, Griffioen has already laid the foundations for a career in the media, working for a Dutch sports magazine, while she also hopes to have a role in ensuring that Netherlands can produce many more champions.
“I started working for a sports magazine in the Netherlands. ‘Helden’ magazine [which translates as ‘Heroes in English]. For the last couple of years I knew I wanted to work in this area," Griffioen explained. "I also would like to mentor talented players to make sure they achieve their goals.”
In terms of her own future goals, Griffioen hinted at a career in the media when she was a “roving reporter” at this year’s World Wheelchair Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, one of a number of ATP World Tour or WTA tournaments that integrates UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour events.
The development of more and more tournaments for wheelchair players and able-bodied pros taking place alongside each other is something that Griffioen has enjoyed many times as a player and that she hopes to see more of in the future.
“The fact that we play in all the four Grand Slams is a major development. The tennis fans are on site, so it’s a great opportunity to showcase wheelchair tennis to a bigger audience," she said. "Also, the ABN AMRO World Wheelchair Tennis Tournament and Rome (Internzionali d’Italia) are great events that include wheelchair tennis in their events. I would like to see that happen at more events.”