For as long as she can remember, Dutchwoman Aniek van Koot has always “found her comfort in wheelchair tennis.”
“It made me realise who I am, what my qualities are, what qualities I don’t have. It made me independent at a young age,” she says.
“(Through tennis) I was able to learn more languages than my colleagues at school. I wasn’t afraid to get around and I’m really proud of that.”
Looking at the back stories of many of the men’s and women’s wheelchair competitors, it’s rare to find one who doesn’t have a compelling and gripping tale to tell.
For the 22-year-old van Koot, hers begins at birth.
Born with her right leg significantly shorter than the other, van Koot opted to undergo Illizarov surgery, where multiple bones are broken and then extended via a combination of pins and metal scaffolding.
“Unfortunately I was the first one they operated on with that surgery in Nijmegen,” she says.
“At one town 30 kilometres further, they had 11 years experience but they never contacted one another. It totally went wrong. After 10 surgeries I had to make a decision. To try and walk with a stiff leg and not be able to cycle or run or whatever, or amputate and learn to walk again. My parents convinced me that it was the best option and I’m thankful for that.
“My parents actually said we’ll take you to Disneyland if you amputate. So I said ‘OK, cool!’ I did it but they never took me,” she smiles.
Raised up in a tennis-mad family, van Koot says the sport was always a part of her life but she wasn’t able to participate in the way she would have liked.
“I loved tennis as well but I simply couldn’t run, I was just standing there on the court and trying to reach as far as I could.
“But at the age of 10 my mum saw wheelchair tennis on television. Then I was sold. I loved it. After the amputation in 2002 it started to get serious. I thought ‘this is going to be my sport’.”
And made it her sport she has. Now number two in the world, van Koot returns to Melbourne as the number one seed and is looking to claim the Australian Open title for the first time.
She also lands on Australian soil as a Paralympian, having represented her country at London last year where she picked up two silver medals in the singles and doubles events.
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions. If I look back, I can’t remember much actually. I was really scared to lose first round, to not do well,” she says.
“But my parents were there, it was really emotional. I won the quarterfinal, it was a really tense match and started to cry. But I thought, ‘it’s OK, you’re there and you get to play for a medal’.”
Saying at St Kilda during her visit Down Under, van Koot describes Melbourne as the “one city I could move to other than Holland”, and has already enjoyed the occasional coffee by the beach.
“Obviously my first focus is tennis ... but I do care for my tan as well,” she laughs.
But for the next few days, her focus will remain on court. After a straight-sets win over South African Kgothatso Montjane on Wednesday, van Koot’s next opponent is compatriot Marjolein Buis in the semifinals.
And, just for the record, she is well versed in Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Swedish and English. With a firm grip of the language of tennis too.