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Lucas Sithole's belief that he is capable of overcoming any challenge is the strongest part of his game. (Image: Reg Caldecott)


• Bianca Morkel
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Sulaiman Philip

In September 2013 Lucas Sithole made history. The world's number two quadriplegic tennis player became the first African to win a Grand Slam title when he beat the top ranked player at the US Open. Last week he had a second opportunity to beat David Wagner when they met in the final of the Australian Open.

His challenge may have bit the dust over three gruelling sets but his sense of regret has already begun to dissipate. Back home with his family in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, he sounds ready for his next challenge – winning the Airports Company South Africa SA Open at Ellis Park from April 29 to May 3.

"It's a dream I need to fulfil, winning at home in front of South African fans," he says, the chatter of his excited family in the background almost drowning out the sound of his voice. Sithole headed straight home after being greeted by Fikile Mbalula, minister of sport and recreation, who handed over a cheque for R50 000. It was Sithole's reward for being an inspiration to South Africans, able-bodied and paraplegic alike.

For a moment he summons up the loss in Australia. He feels he did not make Wagner work hard enough for his victory. He wasn't as patient as he should have been and his ground strokes weren't as lethal as he needed them to be. "The thing about losing is it allows you to see where your mistakes are. You realise there is still room to fill in. It gives you the motivation to improve your game in training."

Coming back from loss has been the driving narrative of Sithole's life since 1998. He is reticent when it comes to the accident that caused him to lose both legs and his right arm. "I don't want to talk about it," he says firmly. Sithole was helping to load trains at an agricultural storage depot when he fell on to the tracks as the train began to roll.

Acceptance of change

The loss of his legs could have caused Sithole, then a 12-year-old who dribbled a soccer ball around the streets of Dannhauser in northern KwaZulu-Natal, to drop into a well of depression. But going to school in Emadadeni Township with other disabled children was his saving grace, he says. "Living with other disabled children lightened up my life. Seeing other children made it easier for me to accept that my life had changed."

Sithole picked up a tennis racquet when he was invited to a wheelchair tennis camp in 2005, when the sport was first launched in the country. In 2006, he was selected to represent South Africa at a tournament in Netherlands, the home of the best wheelchair tennis player of all time, Esther Vergeer.

His success comes as no surprise to his coach, Holger Losch. Sithole lost his first competitive international match 6-0, 6-0, but he enjoyed playing on the big stage. "You would expect Lucas to struggle physically, but he has this strength of character. He pushes himself, he faces down challenges. He is competitive and lives life to the fullest," Losch told CNN of his carefree charge.

In the nine years since his international debut in Amsterdam, Sithole has won seven titles and risen to become the second best singles player in the world. His only regret about losing in Australia is the points he lost in his attempt to overhaul the lead Wagner has over him in the International Tennis Federation rankings.

"I lost to him in my first tournament [Amsterdam 2006] but now I believe that every time we meet I am in with a good chance of beating him. Our rivalry is good for the sport and playing against him only makes me better."

Sponsorship needed

Continuing success will make it easier for Sithole to attract a personal sponsor, his triumphs are one of the key reasons that the audience for quadriplegic tennis has grown from a minority sport to one drawing in a larger audience.

South Africa has been spoilt for choice when it comes to paraplegic heroes. Sithole is talked about as the athlete to take up the mantle that was lost by disgraced Oscar Pistorius. On his return from New York he was greeted by fans at the airport, all eager for him to sign their "Rolling Inspiration" posters.

"Even going out to get bread at the local shop people knew who I was. I have no problem with that," he says confidently. This belief in his ability, and the recognition it brings him as well as his self-reliance underpins his success.

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Sithole is the spirit of excellence we should strive for as a nation says minister Fikile Mbalula who met Sithole when he returned from Australia. (Image: WTSA)

Once he returns to Johannesburg Sithole's schedule will return to normal. He trains for four hours a day on Mondays to Fridays because there are still mountains to climb. Besides winning a title in front of his South African fans he has his eye on the podium in Brazil in 2016.

"You know why I love tennis? It has given me the opportunity to show the world that people in my situation are capable of doing anything they set their minds to. When you are doing something you love you don't want to change anything in your life."

For now Sithole is free to enjoy his beloved uMaskandi music and just chill with his family.