Wim­ble­don wheel­chair ten­nis ace Kgothatso Mon­t­jane

Ten­nis star Kgothatso Mon­t­jane talks about her Wim­ble­don feat and the mo­ment that changed her life


GROW­ING up she was shunned by other chil­dren. No one wanted to play with her be­cause she was dif­fer­ent – a dis­abled kid in a world where run­ning and jump­ing and climb­ing were the main pas­times. Those kids could never have imag­ined where Kgothatso Mon­t­jane would be now: a cel­e­brated sports star mak­ing head­lines in a sport where she com­petes on the same stage as her all-time idol, Ser­ena Wil­liams.

The feisty 32-year-old left-han­der has turned her dis­abil­ity into a tri­umph, trav­el­ling to the world’s top ten­nis tour­na­ments and play­ing her heart out to be­come one of the best in the busi­ness.

And never was this more ob­vi­ous than at Wim­ble­don re­cently.

Kgothatso trav­elled to Lon­don all alone with­out even a coach to cheer her on yet she went all the way to the semi­fi­nals of the wheel­chair cat­e­gory, los­ing to Diede de Groot of the Nether­lands.

But it was enough to make her a na­tional hero­ine – and ce­ment her place in the his­tory books as the first black South African woman to rep­re­sent both her coun­try and the con­ti­nent on the grass courts of the fa­mous All Eng­land Club.

Mak­ing her feat all the more re­mark­able is the fact it was her first tour­na­ment on grass.

“I couldn’t pre­pare prop­erly be­cause where I train here at home we don’t have any grass fa­cil­i­ties, but I don’t make ex­cuses for any­thing,” she says. “I al­ways make sure I push my­self.”

Kgothatso is jus­ti­fi­ably proud of her­self and her achieve­ments. “I’m not afraid to say I feel like I’ve made it in life,” she says.

The young woman re­turned home to a hero’s wel­come af­ter three weeks in the UK – but few peo­ple were more de­lighted to see her smil­ing face at OR Tambo In­ter­na­tional Air­port than her par­ents, Al­bert and Mar­garet Mon­t­jane. And Kgothatso was over­whelmed to see them there.

“It was such an emo­tional mo­ment for me,” she says. “They took the time to come all the way from our home in Lim­popo to con­grat­u­late me on a job well done and that made me love them all the more.

“My fam­ily is proud of me and they sup­port me all the way. Some par­ents who have chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties don’t even give their chil­dren a chance to go to school but mine did.”

And it was be­cause she had a strong sup­port base that she’s achieved as much as she has, she says.

So far Kgothatso has com­peted in all four Grand Slam ten­nis tour­na­ments – the Aus­tralian Open, Roland-Gar­ros (the French Open), the US Open and now Wim­ble­don.

She reached ei­ther the quar­ter­fi­nals or semi­fi­nals in the sin­gles cat­e­gory and went all the way to the dou­bles fi­nals with her Ger­man part­ner, Katha­rina Kruger.

“I played in all the Grand Slams and my list was just miss­ing Wim­ble­don. I knew I would get there one day.”

And she did – with a bang.

KGOTHATSO was born with am­ni­otic band syn­drome, a con­di­tion where a mother’s pla­centa be­comes dam­aged and wraps around parts of the baby’s body, starv­ing them of oxy­gen and pre­vent­ing their de­vel­op­ment.

“In my case the pla­centa at­tached it­self to my leg and fin­gers,” she says.

Although her hands were both af­fected it was her foot that was par­tic­u­larly badly dam­aged.

She grew up in Seshego vil­lage in Polok­wane along­side younger sib­lings Mat­sha and Mas­esi in a home filled with love and didn’t re­alise she was dif­fer­ent un­til other kids started avoid­ing her.

“They stared at me and felt sorry for me be­cause I had a bad limp,” she says.

But ev­ery­thing changed when her par­ents en­rolled her at the He­len Franz Spe­cial School in Bochum, Lim­popo.

“There I re­alised I wasn’t the only dif­fer­ently abled child. Ev­ery­one there helped me set­tle into the en­vi­ron­ment – that school helped make me the con­fi­dent per­son I am to­day.”

She was 12 when a spe­cial­ist rec­om­mended she have her dam­aged foot am­pu­tated. “He said it would help with my move­ment and the limp might give me back and hip prob­lems in fu­ture.”

She learnt to use a pros­thetic but Kgothatso, a nat­u­ral sportswoman, was al­ways more com­fort­able in her wheel­chair when play­ing the sports she ex­celled in, such as ta­ble ten­nis and wheel­chair bas­ket­ball.

But it was only when she was study­ing to­wards a so­cial science de­gree at the Uni­ver­sity of Venda for Science and Tech­nol­ogy that she got into wheel­chair ten­nis.

“I was forced to try it,” she re­calls. “I’d never played ten­nis be­fore but peo­ple at the uni­ver­sity saw how good I was at other sports and made me play it.”

And soon she’d fallen in love. “I en­joyed the chal­lenge of push­ing my wheel­chair while hav­ing to hold the rac­quet and hit a ball.”

Watch­ing her now, it’s as if she and the wheel­chair are one – a per­fect blend of skill, power and mo­bil­ity.

AS MUCH as she loved her Wim­ble­don ex­pe­ri­ence, the proud­est mo­ment of her ca­reer was when she qual­i­fied for the 2008 Par­a­lympics in Bei­jing, China. “That mo­ment changed my life,” she says. “At that stage I didn’t even know what the Par­a­lympics were. I had been play­ing ten­nis for one-and-a-half years and af­ter qual­i­fy­ing for the Games I felt like I could do any­thing and be any­thing. The freak­ing Par­a­lympics, imag­ine! Ev­ery­one wants to com­pete there and I made it.”

Wheel­chair ten­nis re­quires a lot of de­ter­mi­na­tion, she adds. “To get far you need to have good fund­ing – the equip­ment is ex­pen­sive, trav­el­ling is ex­pen­sive.”

Kgothatso has re­ceived sup­port from Wheel­chair Ten­nis South Africa, Air­ports Com­pany South Africa and the South African Sports Con­fed­er­a­tion and Olympic Com­mit­tee (Sas­coc) to re­alise her dream.

“I don’t have a per­sonal spon­sor but that will not stop me from fol­low­ing my pas­sion.”

She also works as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker and at­tends as many youth de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes as pos­si­ble where she can tell her in­spir­ing story, es­pe­cially in ru­ral ar­eas and town­ships like the one where she grew up.

Back home in Seshego, Kgothatso hosts sports day events, gives mo­ti­va­tional talks and reg­u­larly vis­its her school to share her story of suc­cess.

“I want young peo­ple to un­der­stand that stay­ing ac­tive and healthy when you have a dis­abil­ity will help you a lot phys­i­cally. I can see what ten­nis has done for me.”

To train she plays two hours of ten­nis every day and spends an hour in the gym. “The most im­por­tant thing is for me to stay fit and in­jury-free.”

Right now there’s noth­ing that lim­its her. “I am com­pet­ing on the same courts as Ser­ena Wil­liams,” she says. “And that makes me a star.”

“I’m not afraid to say I feel like I’ve made it in life”

FAR LEFT: Kgothatso Mon­t­jane be­came the first black South African woman to play at Wim­ble­don where she rep­re­sented both SA and the con­ti­nent. LEFT: The wheel­chair ten­nis ace in ac­tion at the Aus­tralian Open ear­lier this year.

FAR LEFT: Kgothatso with mom Mar­garet and sib­lings Mathsa and Mas­esi. LEFT: With South African ten­nis star Kevin An­der­son. RIGHT: Kgothatso walked with a limp un­til her dam­aged foot was am­pu­tated when she was 12 years old.

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