/ 4 April 2008

Flying the flag for wheelchair tennis

”Prodigious” is the only word that can describe the performance of Kgothatso Montjane, the South African female wheelchair tennis champion.

Unlike many sporting personalities who started playing sport at an early age, the 21-year-old, who hails from Seshego, Polokwane, has only been playing wheelchair tennis since 2005 and has already earned herself a wildcard for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. Her wildcard was achieved on merit.

Montjane made a clean sweep of all the tournaments across the country in 2005 and 2006, winning the Acsa Open, the Free State Open, the Limpopo Open and the South African Open. She also represented South Africa in 2006 at the Nottingham Open, the Belgium Open and the Amsterdam Open.

Montjane, who had her leg amputated in 1999 because of an infection, is ranked number one in the country and number 50 in the world.

The Mail & Guardian caught up with her at the University of Pretoria’s High Performance Centre during her practice match against Desmond Mamonyane, her teammate from the University of Venda, shortly before the kick-off of the Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) Pretoria Wheelchair Tennis Open, which runs until April 6.

Montjane’s road to potential Olympic glory started two years ago when Acsa invited the Helen France Special School (for the disabled) in Boghum, Limpopo, to a wheelchair tennis camp. Because her friends were taking part in the event, Montjane decided to go along.

”I just went to have fun and winning was not on my mind because I knew nothing about wheelchair tennis. Though I loved sport since I was a kid, I never saw myself taking part, but not because I was disabled. Having my leg amputated in 1999 didn’t bother me at all because I was already at a special school and knew that one day it would be removed.”

To her surprise she was selected to represent South Africa in the junior wheelchair tennis open in Holland. It took her only three months to earn her South African colours.

Montjane’s solid and accurate shots, as well as her scintillating speed on the court, make wheelchair tennis look easy. She is physically strong, can move her wheelchair far better than any of her local female opponents and she is highly tactical.

”It all comes with practice. You need to move your wheelchair fast across the court and you have to think fast when you are playing. It also depends on the type of wheelchair you use. The ones we use, which were donated by Acsa, are quite heavy,” says Montjane.

Despite being the number one South African female in wheelchair tennis, Montjane, like her colleagues, doesn’t have a sponsor. She uses a heavy wheelchair with worn-out tires, which makes it difficult for her to perform wonders. She also has to buy her own tennis racquets, balls and attire for matches.

An imported, high-quality wheelchair, the kind used by professionals, costs between R30 000 and R35 000. Locally manufactured ones cost between R8 000 and R12 500.

She says: ”We appreciate what Acsa is doing for us, but one needs a sponsor so that one can get a good, light wheelchair. Tyres are another issue — Acsa changes them for us but only if we are here in Johannesburg.”

Motjane’s dream is to compete against the world’s number one female wheelchair tennis player, Esther Vergeer from Holland, at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

”I would like to learn a thing or two from her. It is not about winning for me, but learning, and with the experience she has I’m sure I can learn a lot from her.

”I have been training very hard over the past few months while trying to find a balance between my studies and the sport. Chances that I might face her [Vergeer] in the Paralympics are very high,” says Montjane, who is studying towards a BSC degree in Recreation and Leisure at the University of Venda.

But, she says, she will need a sponsor to help take her game to a higher level. ”I have the talent and I can still improve my performance. I want to see myself ranked alongside Esther Vergeer so I can give back to my community in the future,” she says.

Montjane will be using the event in Pretoria and other upcoming International Tennis Federation wheelchair tennis events as preparation for the Paralympics. She will also be gearing up for another Acsa Johannesburg Open, which will be played at the University of Johannesburg from April 7 to 11.