Players in the pound seats
When I ask Patrick Selepe how to high-jump on artificial legs, he gives me a big “I’ve been waiting for that one” smile. “You take off your prosthetics and hop to the bar before jumping,” he says, unable to stop beaming. “I’m the South African record-holder in the men’s T42 category – I’ve jumped 1.52m before.”
As a young man, Selepe had both legs amputated above the knee because of a rare form of bone cancer.
That was nearly 20 years ago and, because he had always been a serious able-bodied athlete, he cast around for a replacement sport despite his new limbs.
“Believe me, I didn’t know anything about disabled sport,” he said. “I saw Fanie Lombard at the Sydney Paralympics ... and he inspired me in discus and javelin. After that, wheelchair tennis became my new love because I struggled a bit with the javelin. I was touring overseas as a development player as long ago as 2004.”
Along with wheelchair tennis evangelists such as Holger Losch, Selepe has done as much as anyone to broaden the base of the sport, seeing it fan out into new disabled schools and constituencies. As well as playing in this week’s Acsa SA Open at Ellis Park (he was knocked out in the first round), Selepe is the sport’s national development manager. He has seen it grow at an astonishing rate, so much so that the SA Open is one of six major events internationally in what is called the Super Series.
Glamorous poster boys
It produces glamorous poster boys like Lucas Sithole and Evans Maripa seemingly on a whim, and finds itself in the strange position – with the death of the SA Open and the Soweto Open – of being sexier and more dynamic than the able-bodied version of the sport, certainly in this country.
Another reason for the sport’s growing popularity is that not all disabled sportsmen and women can don their blades like Oscar Pistorius or enjoy the dodgem car-type jamming that seems to constitute wheelchair basketball.
At its best, wheelchair tennis displays some of the grace and technical artistry of the real thing. It doesn’t always turn out that way because wheelchair tennis players aren’t always necessarily graceful, but its best practitioners are athletes who sometimes soar, forever stalking the Holy Grail of flight and a certain lightness of body and spirit.
Round-faced and jolly as a vetkoek, Marshall Marsh doesn’t give the impression of being able to break free of earthly ties too often. He wasn’t helped on Tuesday when he was drawn in the first round of the SA Open against the tournament’s number one-ranked player and number two in the world, Stéphane Houdet of France, 20 years his senior.
Despite losing 6-0, 6-1, Marsh, whose nickname is Mibo, seemed none the worse for wear. He tucked in to a full lunch afterwards and followed it up with an apple or two from the tournament canteen.
“Mibo is my made-up nickname,” he tells me. “I gave it to myself. No one at home calls me Marshall; it stands for: ‘Marshall is baie oulik [Marshall is very cute]’.”
Mibo lost his mother in a shack fire when he was two months old. He suffered from terrible burns, which resulted in him having both legs amputated, and left him with scalding on his left hand and arm. With his father nowhere in sight, he was brought up by his grandmother and was introduced to wheelchair tennis by a guardian angel called Eugenie Stellenberg while at the Northern Lights School for the disabled in Korsten in greater Port Elizabeth.
Having known nothing else, he doesn’t give the impression that he allows his disability to affect his quality of life. He’s about to graduate with a degree in human movement sciences from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth and is the father of two daughters, Jamie-Lee (5) and Jene (5 months). He has Jamie Lee’s name tattooed on his arm and, higher up, has the phrase “Get rich or die tryin’?” tattooed on his bicep, a reference to the rapper 50 Cent, one of his musical favourites along with Tupac Shakur.
‘Not the fake stuff’
“I like the real stuff, not the fake stuff,” he says in explaining his love of gangsta rap. “That makes sense to me – it’s stuff I can relate to.”
Despite the two gold teeth and a taste for incendiary music, Marsh seems to be a straight-living, huggable sort of guy. He doesn’t smoke, never drinks and generally lives the clean life.
He’s not immune to the kind of gallows humour that stalks the wheelchair tennis circuit, though, enjoying the jokes that were doing the rounds about a group of overseas players who got stuck in their hotel lift during a prolonged bout of evening load-shedding this week.
He and others add that players have been known to party like animals and drink like fish. “For last week’s tournament in Benoni we had braai tongs printed with the tournament’s name given out to everyone who came to the post-tournament party,” says Bruce Davidson, the event’s media liaison man. “We had the braais made at ground level so they could cook their own meat – and boy can they dance and party.”
Wheelchair tennis is bedevilled by only one thing – mobility. It is different to the real game in that the ball is allowed to bounce twice before being hit, but in all other respects the game is the same.
In an effort to see to it that players don’t behave like whales in ice, effectively unable to turn, the wheelchair’s main wheels are designed at an angle to the perpendicular and there are often smaller wheels – both front and back – to give the chair added stability.
Tippy and unstable
“The negative effect of spreading those wheels wider [they are generally at angles of between 18 and 21 degrees] is that they become tippy and unstable,” says Losch, the tournament director and the president of Wheelchair Tennis SA. “You lift your arm for a lob and suddenly you find your chair tipping over.”
Marsh says he’s fallen out once or twice, although he stresses this is the exception rather than the rule. His strap, which buckles him to the body of the chair, once snapped, he says; he rolled out like a peach.
For the most part, though, chairs are stable and safe. They are being constantly upgraded and refined, with the chair Houdet used in his victory over Marsh allowing him to kneel, rather than sit, something which has caused a certain raising of eyebrows from the legislators.
Despite the sport’s rapidly rising profile, there were no cameras at Ellis Park this week. It is understood that Wheelchair Tennis SA is paying SuperSport for minimal coverage of the event, which seems to be an inversion of the natural order. Wheelchair tennis players can’t fly but they can do pretty much everything else. They are feisty, alive and very much kicking. As is their sport.