Entering tennis late and knowing nothing about the sport, 35-year-old Kgothatso Montjane speaks to Athandiwe Saba about her becoming the first black woman South African player to reach the Wimbledon final, her ‘robotic’ leg, being a DJ and the love of her parents.
Tell me what it was like growing up in Ga-Mphahlele village in Limpopo.
I grew up in a very big family. My grandma has eight kids, including my mother. So obviously I used to be the only child who was born with a disability. Everyone was so overprotective of me, even though at the same time they wanted to treat me like any other person at home.
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When it came to the time I was supposed to go to school, the school was very far. So my mom had to take me to a school for children with disabilities outside of town, Polokwane, Helene Franz Special School. That’s when I saw kids with, you know, different disabilities. It was quite a positive environment for me to grow up in. That’s where I was introduced to sports.
Is that where the active bug bit?
When I was about 12, one teacher saw me throwing stones at the big marula tree. The teacher said I should come to the sports ground and try athletics. I went and tried. But the very same year, I went for my amputation because they wanted me to be on a prosthetic leg because I was on surgical boots and I was limping quite a lot.
I came back a couple of months after that and I was recruited for table tennis and basketball. There were a lot of sporting activities I was doing at school. I started spending less time at home because, during the holidays, we would go to the championships or competitions. That was my life until I was in grade 12, when my family asked me to cut down on the activities. They said I needed to focus on matric.
How did you move into tennis?
In my matric year, one teacher asked me to represent the school in something called ‘tennies’. I tried to work myself out of it. But they weren’t asking me. I had never seen this before. I went and observed, and then I started playing. By the end of that three-day camp, I was chosen as one of the people to attend a development camp in Holland.
To be honest, even though I thought going on a plane and overseas would be awesome, I still was not keen on playing tennis. For me, I figured that by the end of the year, when I leave school, I don’t have to deal with tennis anymore.
But when I got to the University of Venda, the only sport for people with physical disabilities was tennis. Because I was such an active person, I had to play it. That’s when I started getting interested in the sport.
You are one of the top international tennis players. What is that experience like and what is the treatment like at a Wimbledon competition?
I knew nothing about tennis for the longest time. I didn’t care less, to be honest. But then I got to the Australian Open, and everyone was making a big deal with all these big tennis stars. I mean, I didn’t even know who the big tennis stars were. And I’m asking myself, why is everyone making a big fuss? I went to Google, then I read about them and I’m like, “Yo, so this thing is a big deal”. I think that’s when I started taking things seriously. I was just like, I want to do that more. Do you know?
So yeah, in 2013, things changed for me in my head and I just started working harder and harder. I didn’t know what it actually takes to make a tennis champion. After wheelchair tennis, South Africa lost a sponsorship in 2017 there was no money. Reality hit. I would not be able to travel and compete in tournaments.
It must have hit you hard.
I must say that was one of my biggest challenges. As I was thinking that I was mastering the sport, it gets taken away from me. But I put my head down and started asking Google how to write proposals. Ma [Zanele] Mbeki responded. She gave me a couple of thousand and the following year, 2018, I used it to go to Roland Garros [French Open].
When I was in Paris, I got an email saying I’m going to Wimbledon and I knew I couldn’t miss it even if I had no money. So with that little bit of money that was left and the prize money, I went to Wimbledon without a coach. I told myself that this could be the last event and it had to be worth it. I went out and played and tried to enjoy the experience at Wimbledon because it was my first time on grass.
But then obviously the media being media, they made a big story of the fact that I went to Wimbledon without a coach. I had mixed feelings about it. But that opened doors for me with the Optimize Agency [that specialises in sports and entertainment] taking me on board pro bono.
Being an international athlete, how is it like going back home?
Obviously most people, they’re very proud of me. My family’s very proud of me. You know, the biggest thing for me is to keep sharing a part of me with my community.
The children are the most hilarious. They always ask about my leg, wondering if it’s robotic. I always have to come up with an extraordinary story like I was crossing the road and this truck hit me and that’s how I lost my leg. There always has to be some transformer story.
You are an international level athlete. What is it that you are not good at?
Cooking. I’m not good at cooking.
So what do you eat? Because you’re an athlete, you must have healthy meals?
I try, I try. But you know, times whereby you cook and you look at the food and be like, “what was I doing?’” It’s that bad. But I am lucky I have my sister who comes to my rescue.
We will forgive you for not being able to cook because you are also a beats maker.
Hahaha. I do that for fun. When the laptop comes with cool software, you have to play with it. Don’t worry. It’s not something that I’m willing to pursue or anything. But yeah, I’m that kind of person who stays at home and spends a lot of time on the couch when possible.
I’m a homebody, in front of the TV, playing video games, reading and listening to a lot of music. After all the travelling and constant working out you have to rest and my couch is the best place.