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 self-confidence: “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.”