South African wheelchair tennis star defies the odds
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Pretoria (AFP) –
An electrifying slanted backhand is seamlessly followed by a swift 360 degree clockwise manoeuvre of her wheelchair before South Africa's top-ranked Paralympic tennis player halts, gazing sharply across the court.
Grabbing the next ball, lodged in the metal rims of her lightweight titanium wheelchair, Kgothatso Montjane sends it pirouetting with such agility and precise technique, it is hard to believe the 34-year-old pro picked up her first tennis racket by chance and in her late teens.
"I'm not a grassroots-crafted player. I picked up the racket at the age of 19," she told AFP during a training session in Pretoria.
"So, I feel like there is a need for me to actually catch up. I really need to grind hard because to become the best player, you really need to work hard."
Unlike most tennis royalty, the athlete is a late bloomer, having been coerced by fate into the sport.
"When I got to university, wheelchair tennis was the only disability sports that was active," she chuckled.
So she joined a team which she credits for helping her to improve her style of play.
Within just over a decade she has shot up the rankings of wheelchair tennis to become a three-time Paralympian and is currently fifth in the world.
Affectionately known as KG, she made history in 2018 when she became the first black South African woman to compete at Wimbledon.
She is now looking to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics.
"My goal is to just finish in the podium," she said. "It doesn't really matter which medal colour it is."
Stepping out of her carbon-fibre chair with confidence, the 1.54 metres tall tennis star wears a prosthetic left leg.
Some of her fingers on her right hand, which she uses to toss, are not fully formed.
- 'Looked at differently' -
Born in rural northern Limpopo province with a congenial defect, her family was never bothered, expecting her to do house chores like any other girl. But elsewhere, she was alienated.
"Unfortunately as a child... You don't understand why people are looking at you differently," Montjane said.
She was dumbfounded when she was randomly selected by her teachers to represent her school in a tennis camp during her senior year -- her debut taste of the sport.
"I didn't even know you have to play it on the court," she said, her eyes bulging with amazement of the memory.
"They just gave me a racket and I just had to figure it out," she said, burying her face in her hands.
With limited resources, at school they were forced to play in the school hall, improvising for nets with chairs, she recalled.
It's 7 pm (1700 GMT) in the capital and Montjane is little phased by the gruelling hours of training.
Effortlessly, she serves and moves with the elegance of a ballerina, quickly pounding her able-bodied opponent into requesting a water break.
Strapped into the chair, players' movements are restricted at the calves and waist, pushing them to rely on upper body and arm strength.
"Everything is the same, except we don't have our lateral movement, we move more in circular movements," she said.
Wheelchair tennis uses a two-bounce rule -- the first bounce must land in the court, while the second can be anywhere.
The Tokyo Paralympic Games are expected to be held for a month, beginning August 4.
"I'm so lucky my generation could go out there and play, and... represent my country, I carry it with a lot of pride," she said.
With a growing list of sponsors and social media followers backing her, the athlete has defied the odds.
© 2021 AFP