No fault

When double amputee Sydwell Mathonsi’s prosthetic leg broke while he was walking around at school, his peers mocked him, making him feel useless.

Mathonsi, the South African wheelchair tennis champion, had to walk on what remained of his prosthetic leg and one crutch for three weeks.

”I remember the suffering I went through during that period. It is something that I do not wish to go through again in my life. When my prosthetic broke people at school made a huge circle and some laughed at me. I was hurt and felt out of place. I thought of quitting the school because of what happened,” said Mathonsi, shaking his head. ”It is something that I took time to come to terms with. I still hurt when I talk about it.”

But the accident was something of an eye-opener for Mathonsi — he hasn’t looked back since. ”I learned to stand up for myself and things started changing when I got my new prosthetic leg after three weeks.”

The Mail & Guardian caught up with him this week at the Airports Company South Africa wheelchair tennis open in Mafikeng. The tournament is part of his preparations for the Invacare World Team Cup, which takes place later this month in the United Kingdom.

The tournament, which is hosted by the International Tennis Federation, is often referred to as the Davis and Fed Cup of wheelchair tennis. Top players and nations are brought together for seven days each year to compete for the title of ”best wheelchair tennis nation”. This year about 33 nations will compete for the illustrious title.

The 24-year-old from Xikundu Village in Limpopo was born with deformed legs. After several unsuccessful operations both his legs had to be amputated in 1996. At the time it was difficult for him to come to terms with his condition and he relied on support from his cousins. In the village his friends used to tease him, but he got used to it.

In 2001 he was offered a bursary to study at the Sir Harry Oppenheimer Special School (at which his prosthetic leg broke) in Mokopane, Limpopo.

”This is where I learned a lot of things. I moved from home and had to learn to take care of myself,” he said.

At the school he was a track and field athlete who specialised mostly in javelin and discus. But he didn’t really cut it in the sport. In 2006, while studying at the University of Venda, he was introduced to wheelchair tennis by fellow teammate George Lefading.

”I found the sport fascinating and was willing to learn a thing or two. I was ready to take the challenge — and look where it has got me today.”

Although Mathonsi is ranked first in the singles and second in the doubles locally — and 41 in the world — he has won only two major competitions. His first major tournament victory came in 2007 when he won the Limpopo Open before scooping the South African Open last year. He also represented South Africa at the 2008 Para-lympics in Beijing. His ultimate goal is to be ranked among the top 10 in the world.

Mathonsi believes that if there were more local wheelchair tennis tournaments he would be able to improve his performance. ”At the moment we have only six tournaments and they are not enough, especially for top players like us. You need more tough competition so you can improve. I have played in a number of finals, which I have lost, and believe I could have done better if I competed regularly.

”Later this month we are going to face tough opponents, but we are ready for the challenge. Last year we took part in the same tournament and finished 14th out of 16 teams, which was bad. But the tables will be turned this year as we have a stronger team. The tournament is about teamwork and not individuals,” he said.

With Mathonsi in the team South Africa stands a good chance of improving on last year’s position. He possesses natural talent and moves quickly across the court, hits the ball hard, spins his wheelchair like a car spinning on a race track and has the vision to leave his opponents bewildered by his shot placement.

”If you want to see some of my tricks come watch me play a match. I think I’m good and can only improve with time and more tournaments.”

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Lucky Sindane
Guest Author

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