Kgothatso Montjane: my achievements will open doors for Africans who want to play wheelchair tennis

LOUGHBOROUGH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30:  Kgothatso Montjane of South Africa in action during her match against Lucy Shuker of Great Britain on day 2 of The NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters at Loughborough University on November 30, 2017 in Loughborough, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for The Tennis Foundation)
LOUGHBOROUGH, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 30: Kgothatso Montjane of South Africa in action during her match against Lucy Shuker of Great Britain on day 2 of The NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters at Loughborough University on November 30, 2017 in Loughborough, England. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for The Tennis Foundation)

The South African Paralympics star is the first African wheelchair tennis player to compete in all four Majors in a year.

Growing up in a rural South African village in Limpopo, accessibility was a problem for Kgothatso Montjane.

"Life was tough growing up with a disability," she said pointedly.

As a young girl she would drag herself outside whenever she wanted to play or move around.

Her parents would have to carry her on their backs or put her on the back of a bicycle if they had to go somewhere.

When she was 12 years old her left leg was amputated due to complications from a congenital disorder, but that period of her life also marked her introduction to sport.

Then deep into her teens, she was pressured to play wheelchair tennis - another unexpected turn in her life.

Nearly two decades later, Montjane is the first African wheelchair tennis player to compete at four Paralympic Games.

“I just picked up a racket at the age of 19, and I made it to the Paralympics. Not a lot of people make it in tennis starting that late,” she said.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 10:  Kgothatso Montjane of South Africa competes in the wheelchair tennis at court 6 on day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympics on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images)
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 10: Kgothatso Montjane of South Africa competes in the wheelchair tennis at court 6 on day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympics on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lucas Uebel/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

The accidental tennis star

Kgothatso Montjane is now considered the face of women's wheelchair tennis in Africa, a life she never imagined.

As a young disabled girl, she tried to stay calm even as she struggled to find her way around. Movement was a daily effort.

“I couldn’t go anywhere because everything was quite far, to be honest. It was tough growing up with a disability. I just used to play in front of the yard before I got my prosthetic leg,” she reflected on events of her early days.

“It was different from other kids, they used to just stare at me and they didn't want to play with me. As a child you don't know why other kids are being like that.”

“If I had to go to a clinic or something, they (parents) had to carry me on their backs or put me on a bicycle…That's how it was until like at the age of 12.”

An amputation enabled her to have a prosthetic leg fitted and focus on education at a boarding school.

A sports coach at her high school encouraged her to play wheelchair tennis.

Her coach Siyabulela Nkanchela remembers the early days.

“In her wildest dreams she never thought she would play tennis. But the first time I saw her I was quite impressed because she was quite a natural.”

“I wasn't so keen, but they didn't leave me with any choice,” Montjane said of her first brush with the sport she barely knew existed.

“So I went out to try. And after a three-day camp, they said I had potential and I was even selected to represent South Africa in a foundation camp in Holland.

“Then when I went to university the following year in 2006, wheelchair tennis was the only sport for people with physical disabilities at that university. It left me with no choice because I loved playing sports. I love being active.”

The William sisters a great inspiration

She quickly rose up the ranks.

As a semi-professional Montane, also known as ‘KG’ amongst her friends and family, wasn’t just South Africa’s best but was also among the top five women's wheelchair players in the world.

In 2010 she started training and playing full-time and went on her first tour but by her own admission she still “enjoyed traveling more” than playing.

“2013 is when I played my first grand slam in Australia, that’s when I was sort of like, oh this is cool! Because that's when I came across big names like Serena Williams, Roger Federer.

“Then I started reading more about them and I realised that what I was doing was quite serious. From then on, I just sort of started being more, more and more committed, setting goals.”

The hard work and dedication paid off.

The 35-year-old is the first African wheelchair tennis player to compete in all four Majors in a year.

And Tokyo marks her fourth Paralympics, closing in on the number of Olympic appearances of her icons, the Williams sisters.

Serena had played in five straight Olympic Games since 2000 before missing Tokyo.

“The Williams sisters, I just feel like that their history is fresh and I can relate to,” Montjane, who has played in 10 successive Grand Slams and boasts of 39 singles titles, told Tokyo 2020.

“Growing in South Africa having all the history of Apartheid (for me), and how they used to be being booed for just being black and trying to play the sport. They are role models for surviving through all that and encouraging other black people to take up the sport.”

The Williams Sisters at age 11 and 12
08:52

Two of the greatest women players to grace a tennis court, Venus and Serena Williams have never lacked talent, drive, backing or confidence.

The history maker

The Americans' success has hugely inspired the unlikely tennis ace.

Last July, Montjane - who in 2018 became the first black South African woman to compete at Wimbledon - reached the Championships' singles and doubles finals for the first time. It remains her favourite and her most special tournament.

“It's where I make history, it’s where I do well. There's some magic that happens there. I just become myself and I'm free to play. I have no expectations just enjoying the experience.”

She now has a platform. And wants to exploit it.

“I don't do it for myself. I do it for every African woman and every African child who wants to take (up) the sport. I just want them to believe that they can do it, they deserve to be there.

“I'm just hoping that with every bit of my achievement, it can literally make an impact. If I go to Tokyo and do well, it will change the whole narrative of tennis in Africa.”

Her first Paralympic Games was in Beijing 2008, but her immersion in wheelchair tennis since then has given her a deeper perspective on her career.

“I have much more purpose in going to Tokyo. I want to finish on the podium,” said the current world number 6.

“I always told my peers that I don’t care which medal colour. I just want to finish on the podium.

"That will be a success for me, as I just picked up a racket at the age of 19 and I made it to the Paralympics.

"Not many people make it in tennis starting that late."

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