From humble beginnings in Limpopo to rubbing shoulders with royalty at Wimbledon, wheelchair tennis superstar Kgothatso Montjane’s sporting career has taken her to incredible heights. And she’s only getting started!
The sun beats down on the green tennis courts in Pretoria, but wheelchair tennis superstar Kgothatso “KG” Montjane seems undeterred. She expertly manoeuvres her wheelchair and in one elegant sweep smashes the furry tennis ball across the court. It is an impressive feat of athleticism that showcases why KG is currently ranked the sixth-best wheelchair tennis player in the world.
Her career reached new heights last year when she competed at the Wimbledon Championships as the wild-card player. The first black female wheelchair tennis player from South Africa to compete, she rose to the fifth spot in the world rankings. During the last round of tournaments for 2018, KG’s ranking shifted to sixth place.
Her performance at Wimbledon was enough to secure her numerous sponsors on her return to South Africa. These include Makole Group, WDB Investment Holdings, Aspen Pharmacare, Lotto Sport, Banareng Office Suppliers, Casaletti Inc, High Performance Centre at the University of Pretoria, Audi & Volkswagen Polokwane, Ottobock and Dunlop Sport.
Nike, which came on board recently, will sponsor her and her coach’s apparel. Internationally Nike sponsors Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, while the South African branch of Nike backs local superstars such as Caster Semenya.
It is difficult to believe that KG only picked up wheelchair tennis relatively late. While she was always interested in sports as a child, she was more interested in wheelchair basketball and table tennis. However, when she was asked to represent her school at a wheelchair tennis camp, everything changed.
Although she politely declined, the school was determined to have her attend on its behalf. “They were not asking me, they were telling me. I had to oblige. That’s where it all started. The camp in Pretoria was my first time seeing or holding a racket. It was my first time on a tennis court,” KG recalls.
Even though she had no prior experience, she quickly adapted and soon found herself playing against more experienced players. “What worked well for me is that I love competition. I said to myself: ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ It was just a matter of following instructions and figuring out how to make it happen,” KG explains.
This has been her motto ever since, and she managed to “figure it out” all the way to the Wimbledon Championships. Yet her interest in playing wheelchair tennis professionally only sparked while she was studying BSc Recreation and Leisure at the University of Venda.
“When I got to the university, I thought it would be the same as boarding school where there were a lot of sporting opportunities, but the university only offered wheelchair tennis,” KG explains. “I love being active and playing sports. I had no choice but to join the group.” The sport offered her incredible opportunities like travelling to Europe with her team.
“That is when we saw people are really playing well and that is where the interest in the sport developed. We wanted to play like the people from overseas.” After graduating, KG moved to Pretoria and started training more formally.
Now, with her tremendous success and numerous backers, KG finally has the opportunity to get the professional coaching she missed out on as a youth. “I didn’t start at age four or five. Every tournament has been a learning curve for me. I’m a work in progress. When things get tough, I have to rely on my talent,” she says.
“Everyone can play tennis, but not everyone can be professional. That is where the basics come in. By the time you get to the top, things like your consistency need to be there. It is no time to figure it out, which is my biggest challenge, because when things get tough, I need to figure it out,” KG adds.
A big focus point for KG at the moment is thinking technically about her decision on the court. Although she instinctively knows where to go, it is important that she understands why. “For me, it doesn’t matter as long as the ball goes over the net and where I want it to go. I don’t always know how it was executed. My coach keeps taking me back to the basics,” she says.
With more professional coaching and her tremendous talent, KG is sure to be a powerhouse in 2019. While the main goal for the tennis superstar is to grow as a person and as a player, she also hopes to be a confident competitor at Tokyo 2020.
Her sponsors will definitely also make it easier for her to achieve her goals. “It takes a load off my shoulders. Now I can fully focus on tennis. Before, I couldn’t really play because I was thinking that I need to win. If I don’t, it could be the last time I play,” KG says.
One remaining challenge is being the only South African wheelchair tennis player at her level. KG doesn’t have a steady partner for playing doubles and often teams up with a competitor from another country. She argues that this is partly because tennis is not an affordable sport. “There is talent in Africa, but tennis is just an expensive sport. Africans can’t play, because they can’t afford it,” she explains.
Her life advice is simple: rise to the occasion. “Whatever you are doing, it’s not going to be easy. You just have to find it in yourself to do it despite how difficult it might be. We tend to think the world is against us, but no one said it was going to be easy. Find it in yourself to make it work,” she explains.
As her practice winds down, her coach unknowingly shares another pearl of wisdom. After one particularly good serve KG misses, her coach says: “It’s not about the easy shots. Everyone gets those. It’s about the good serves.”
Without a doubt, KG will master 2019 with all her talent, dedication and ability to “make it work”. We wish her all the best for the coming tournaments.
Fun facts about wheelchair tennis superstar KG
• She hopes one day to use her degree to educate and encourage children with disabilities to participate in sports to keep them from feeling isolated and prevent their disability deteriorating prematurely.
“I believe that, once they are active, they will have the confidence to participate in every part of life instead of doubting their abilities. At the back of your mind you forget that you have a disability, because you are always eager for new challenges.”
• She has travelled to numerous countries, but her favourite city is Paris.
“I just love Paris. French people are fascinating. They don’t speak English and they don’t give a damn. Or they speak English with an accent and you just have to figure out what they are saying. France is quite a fascinating country.”
• Today she finds travelling less exciting and more exhausting.
“It becomes tiring. I travel with a lot of baggage, and then I still need compete. However, it is fun. You make friends from countries. You learn about different people and different cultures.”
• Despite all the delicious food she has tried and the wonderful people she has met, South Africa remains her home.
“Pap en vleis is good enough for me. When I come home, I want to eat South African food.
It is very different in South Africa, compared with overseas. I think South Africans are awesome. You just wish you’ll have a conversation with someone and they’ll go ‘eish’!”
• She got to meet royalty at the Wimbledon Championships.
“It was amazing. I didn’t even know who I was going to meet and then there is Meghan [Duchess of Sussex]. I thought to myself: ‘Damn, is this the one who had the royal wedding?’ I’m not going to lie – it was amazing and unexpected.”
• Her favourite tournaments are the Grand Slams, where the competition is tough and there are wild-card players.
“I love the competition. It tests you and how much you want it. It makes you want to do your best. It is the biggest stage to showcase wheelchair tennis to the biggest audience.”