KG’S never-say-die ad­van­tage

It takes real guts to take on the chal­lenge of play­ing at Wim­ble­don. Imag­ine do­ing it without the sup­port of a coach

Mail & Guardian - - Sport - Siyabonga Ng­cangisa

The story of over­com­ing great dis­ad­van­tage is some­thing of a cliché in sport. But, boy, do we still love a good story about beat­ing the odds and the tri­umph of the hu­man spirit over what seem to be in­sur­mount­able odds.

Th­ese are le­gion in foot­ball, but there are fewer such sto­ries in the elite sport­ing codes such as golf and ten­nis, which re­quire hefty fi­nan­cial back­ing to cul­ti­vate fu­ture stars.

Last year, how­ever, wheel­chair ten­nis player Kgothatso (KG) Mon­t­jane served South Africans an ex­tra­or­di­nary feel-good tale.

When she found her­self without a coach be­fore her first Wim­ble­don ap­pear­ance at the age of 32, she had a sim­ple choice: pull out or go it alone.

She chose to face the curve­ball head on.

“I thought to my­self I had to ac­cept the fact that I don’t have a coach. I knew that, if I pull out of this one, I might not have a chance of this na­ture again. It could be the last op­por­tu­nity, so I went on.

“When I got to Wim­ble­don, I chan­nelled my mind into vic­tory mode and noth­ing else, be­cause think­ing about things I couldn’t change wouldn’t have helped,” she says from her train­ing base in Pre­to­ria.

Wheel­chair Ten­nis South Africa (WTSA) had lost its Air­ports Com­pany South Africa spon­sor­ship 18 months be­fore, which was a big fi­nan­cial set­back. WTSA chief ex­ec­u­tive Karen Losch said at the time the or­gan­i­sa­tion needed R12-mil­lion to func­tion, but had man­aged to raise only R2.5-mil­lion.

This was enough for ad­min­is­tra­tion, but hope­lessly in­suf­fi­cient to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for its play­ers. They could not af­ford to hire coaches.

“I knew the sit­u­a­tion, so I had to pre­pare my­self men­tally. I didn’t feel any pity be­cause no one was re­ally to blame. I knew go­ing there without a coach would have been a chal­lenge but th­ese are the chal­lenges I have learnt to ac­cept in this game,” said Mon­t­jane.

For a tour­na­ment of this na­ture, es­pe­cially for a debu­tante, trav­el­ling without a coach has tech­ni­cal dis­ad­van­tages.

“When I got there, I needed some­one who could guide me, for in­stance, in some tech­ni­cal as­pects but there was no one. Ten­nis is a very tech­ni­cal sport, so things like mak­ing the right moves and swings are im­por­tant. I did feel de­mo­ti­vated and felt, ‘Will I get ev­ery­thing right?’ It’s a big event, but I did bet­ter [than I thought], de­spite the odds.

“A coach plays a vi­tal role for you as an ath­lete, not only phys­i­cally but also men­tally. Hav­ing the sup­port of a per­son you train with daily does help when you are play­ing in a tour­na­ment, es­pe­cially abroad. As an ath­lete, you can never be too old to be coached, so for me go­ing there without a coach was not ideal but I had to make the best of the sit­u­a­tion.”

Her usual train­ing sched­ule in­volves a two-hour ses­sion at a ten­nis court each morn­ing of the week, be­fore head­ing to the gym for strength train­ing. At Wim­ble­don, it was no dif­fer­ent, but Mon­t­jane had to go it alone.

“I was trav­el­ling alone and, with this be­ing a big tour­na­ment, the first thing I looked for when I got there was some­one to as­sist me with train­ing. For­tu­nately I had made friends that side so even­tu­ally I did find peo­ple to train with.

“I had my doubts ini­tially; I think it’s nat­u­ral to feel dis­cour­aged. But I had the eye on the big prize and that was help­ful. So, I woke up each morn­ing and trained with dif­fer­ent peo­ple, who­ever was avail­able, and I sort of got the as­sis­tance, but not the same as what a coach would have pro­vided,” says the star, who reached the semi­fi­nals of the tour­na­ment last year.

“When I lost, I was ut­terly dis­ap­pointed. It was a bit­ter­sweet mo­ment, in a way. But I can’t at­tribute that to not hav­ing a coach. I think I did well enough,” she says.

Mon­t­jane is ranked at num­ber five in the world’s wheel­chair ten­nis rank­ings.

Not hav­ing a coach was not her only chal­lenge, how­ever; Mon­t­jane also had to find a spon­sor.

“The thought of al­most not go­ing was an is­sue for me. I had to work around the clock to get fund­ing. That broke my spirit a bit but my dream kept me de­ter­mined.”

The sports mar­ket­ing com­pany Op­ti­mised Agency raised funds for her to travel and par­tic­i­pate. They helped to draft her pro­pos­als and sent them out to po­ten­tial fun­ders and, with what they man­aged to col­lect, Mon­t­jane was able to re­alise her dream.

Her de­ter­mi­na­tion and courage have paid off hand­somely — the Wim­ble­don ex­ploits earned her 10 new cor­po­rate and tech­ni­cal spon­sor­ships, in­clud­ing an Audi Q2 from Audi Lim­popo and a cloth­ing en­dorse­ment from Lotto SA.

Shortly af­ter her re­turn, Mon­t­jane, the first wheel­chair ten­nis player in South Africa to reach the semis of the Wim­ble­don Open, trav­elled to the United States, where she reached the semi­fi­nals of the US Open Grand Slam in New York.

Born in Ga-mphahlele, out­side Polokwane, Mon­t­jane was born with a con­gen­i­tal dis­or­der that af­fected her hands and feet, and one foot had to be am­pu­tated at the age of 12.

Her love for wheel­chair ten­nis be­gan at the Bochum Spe­cial School, a board­ing school she at­tended in Lim­popo. There, she par­tic­i­pated in var­i­ous codes such as bas­ket­ball and ta­ble ten­nis un­til she found her real pas­sion for ten­nis in her ma­tric year.

She says her up­bring­ing played a big role in de­vel­op­ing her self­con­fi­dence: “I don’t feel like I have a dis­abil­ity at all. I was raised by my grand­mother be­cause my par­ents worked far away and I was brought up like any other child in the fam­ily. I was never treated like I needed spe­cial at­ten­tion and that made me con­fi­dent and in­de­pen­dent.”

Not hav­ing a coach for a tour­na­ment such as Wim­ble­don was not her only chal­lenge; Mon­t­jane also had to find a spon­sor

Fo­cused: World wheel­chair ten­nis num­ber five Kgothatso Mon­t­jane raised her own spon­sor­ship to get to Wim­ble­don. Photo: Matt King/getty Im­ages

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