Kgothatso “KG” Montjane closes her eyes and takes a moment before beginning to tell New Frame the details of her journey to becoming the number one wheelchair tennis player in South Africa, and fifth best in the world. She achieved this despite only picking up a tennis racquet at 19 after a school teacher “forced” her to get into the sport.
The 32-year-old does not like to open up about her challenges because it leads to pity. She doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. In fact, all she wants is financial support so she can focus on the game.
Montjane had to go to Wimbledon on her own steam this year because there was not enough money for her coach to go with her. Later, she opened up about her difficulties in an interview on the Ultimate Sport Show on Metro FM.
“I have so many proud moments,” Montjane says, “but I would say that my proudest moment came when I was invited to tell my story on radio. I am a very emotional person, so to keep my cool and tell my story without breaking down meant a lot. Having that courage to share my story with the nation was huge because I am a very private person.”
That interview touched many South Africans, who opened their hearts and wallets to Montjane. Audi Polokwane sponsored her with an Audi Q2, and Optimize Agency volunteered to land her more sponsors on top of the 10 she received after becoming the first black South African woman to compete in Wimbledon. Montjane didn’t know about that milestone nor did she know that she was the first African wheelchair tennis player to feature in all four Grand Slams – Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open – in a calendar year.
Forced into tennis
That’s because tennis was not her thing. “I didn’t know what tennis was before I started,” Montjane says with a laugh. “I was forced into the sport at school. I was ordered to go and represent the school … When I was forced into it, I just buckled down and did it because you don’t want to disrespect your elders when they pick you to do certain things. I picked up the racquet, followed the instructions and eventually became the best in the country,” she says.
Montjane jokes that she wouldn’t have taken up tennis had she known what she was getting herself into – her biggest moment this year, playing at Wimbledon, was also her most challenging. “It was depressing. At the back of my mind was that I have to win each round because I don’t know what will happen next since the money I had couldn’t take me beyond Wimbledon.
“I just told myself that I am going to make the most of it and have fun. I met the royal family [Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex]. I enjoyed myself … with all the challenges that I have faced, I have soldiered on because I want to give hope to the children out there who want to pursue their careers, whether disabled or not.”
Disabled in a village
That positive mentality and fighting spirit was instilled in the player at an early age by her parents, Albert and Margaret Montjane. “They are definitely my biggest source of support and inspiration,” Montjane says. “I was born with a disability [a congenital disorder that led to the amputation of her left leg at 12 and affected her hands].
“Growing up in a village [Ga-Mphahlele] was tough for me and my parents. We all know that people from the villages view giving birth to a kid with a disability as a curse. But my parents gave me the opportunity to explore life. They never limited me on what I can and can’t do. They could have hidden me somewhere where people wouldn’t see me. They could have been embarrassed or ashamed of having such a kid, but instead of feeling like that, they put me out there and let me live life to the fullest.”
Montjane says she did not feel excluded. “They treated me like any other kid. They still made me wash dishes if there was a need to wash dishes.”
Sitting proudly in Montjane’s lounge are tennis balls from the numerous tournaments she has participated in, the Sport Personality of the Year award from the Gauteng Sport Awards and the doubles title from the 2016 Apia International Sydney Wheelchair Tennis Open. Those accolades, as bright as they are, hide the dark thoughts she has entertained of quitting tennis because of the difficulties she has endured.
“I just don’t give up. I just don’t give up,” Montjane repeats. “The thought of quitting has crossed my mind several times, but I would then wake up in the morning and go to the court as usual. All the motivation that I have as a person, I take it with me to my life as an athlete. I had to sit down and look at where I come from as a player. My story is not like that of other players.
“I had a conversation with myself and said, ‘KG, you are not like other players. You started playing at the age of 19, and you can’t be this hard on yourself, to expect things to easily go your way.’ I had to look at where I come from and where I am going. I realised that a lot of players peak at 19, that’s when they find themselves and have breakthroughs in their careers. But with me, that’s when I picked up the racquet for the first time and here I am today playing in Grand Slams. I realised that there’s no need to be hard on myself. I had to find my way and start making it work.”
The financial support she has received means Montjane now only has to worry about beating her opponents. “That … gave me the opportunity to focus fully on my performance. I now don’t have to worry about the fact that if I don’t play, I don’t get money … I went to the US Open knowing that I [would] be comfortable and stay in a better hotel.
“This was the fourth time I was playing in the US Open, and this was the first time I won a match because I wasn’t worrying about anything but my game and I didn’t arrive a day before the tournament because I didn’t have enough money to stay there longer. [I used to wonder], where am I going next? What am I going to eat? Where am I getting money? It really helped a lot.”
Montjane is hopeful about her future in the sport. “I see light at the end of the tunnel. I can see myself improving my game and rising to the top because I’ve got game … This is my time! I am now number five. I’ll take it one step at a time. Four, three, two and one? It’s possible. Getting to the top is possible. It’s a matter of taking those baby steps. I just need to beat those who are on top of me. I have beaten them before.”