Kgothatso Montjane found wheelchair tennis and it opened up a whole new world

Kgothatso Montjane has qualified for all four Grand Slams this year, a feat that is even more impressive considering she did not pick up a tennis racket until age 19. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

NEW YORK -- Kgothatso Montjane had a trainer feed her tennis balls on a practice court. She had reached New York just a few hours ago, but she wanted to get a practice session in and get used to the heat.

She placed every ball between the spokes of the right wheel of her wheelchair. The left-hander counted all 10. She then proceeded to pick out one ball at a time from the wheel, toss it high up in the air and make contact at the apex of its rise.

Among the 10, one landed on the center service line, one went deep in and another landed on the right service line. Split seconds after every release, she zoomed to the other side of the court, using her right hand to move her wheels, preparing for the return.

Watching South Africa's Montjane play wheelchair tennis is like watching a master painter with a brush in hand -- one perfect stroke after another.

The 32-year-old Montjane made history this year, becoming the first black South African woman -- wheelchair or not -- to compete at Wimbledon. When she qualified for the US Open, she became the first wheelchair tennis player from Africa to qualify for all four grand slams in a calendar year. On Thursday, her journey at the year's final Grand Slam will begin.

What has made it even more amazing is that, until age 19, she had never held a tennis racket.

Montjane, known in tennis circles as KG, was born in Limpopo, South Africa, with amniotic band syndrome, a congenital disorder that affected proper growth of fingers and legs. At 12, her left leg had to be amputated because of complications.

Despite the physical challenges, Montjane plays sports. She played any sport that would allow her to compete in her wheelchair. After the amputation, she enrolled in Helen Franz Special School -- a school for kids with disabilities. She loved sports and her parents thought it would help channel her energy. She promptly joined the school's wheelchair table tennis and basketball teams.

It was not until 2005, when wheelchair tennis was first introduced in the country, did Montjane decide to give the sport a shot.

"The first time she held the racket, once she sat on the wheelchair, I knew that, indeed, she would make it," said Matukwane Makgatho, her former teacher and recruiter. "It was like she was born with a racket in her hand.

"It was like watching somebody perform magic," she said.

The people around her, as well as Wheelchair Tennis South Africa, knew she had potential after her first practice session. It took some time and events in Europe before she fell in love with it.

"I saw first-hand how the sport changed the lives of these athletes," Montjane said. "They hit the ball so well, they tricked the opponents with spin and pace. I remember coming back home and trying to copy everything I saw players do on that tour. That need to be better at the sport -- that's when I knew I was falling in love with tennis."

And imitation has been the predominant way of learning for Montjane. When she was not playing, she was glued to her television at home, watching tennis with a notebook in hand. She took notes when Roger Federer and Serena Williams played. She wanted to serve the ball as hard as Serena. She wanted to chip the ball as well as Federer.

In two years, she became No. 5 in the world. In three years, she qualified for the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing. She was named South Africa's sportswoman of the year with a disability three times -- in 2005, 2011 and 2015.

In 2013, she qualified for the Australian Open, her first Grand Slam.

Still, Wimbledon had eluded her. This year, she reached the quarterfinals at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros. Still, she had not yet qualified for Wimbledon. At No. 8 in the world, she would have to wait for the wild-card announcement.

In June, after a match in Paris, she looked at her phone. where she saw an unopened email with the subject line: "Wimbledon 2018 wildcard." It was from the tournament director.

The email said:

"You have been picked as the wildcard entry for this year's Wimbledon. Do you accept this offer?"

"I was not going to say 'No, I don't,'" Montjane said.

"It was the pinnacle of all achievements, the one tournament she'd always wanted to play in ever since she qualified for her first Grand Slam back in 2013," her coach Gerald Stoffberg said.

She reached the semifinal at her first Wimbledon before losing to six-time Grand Slam champion Diede de Groot. She didn't get a chance to speak to Federer and Williams, but she saw them in the corridors.

"I can't believe that I am competing in the same space as them," she said. "I just never saw myself at this stage considering how I started in this sport. Even if I've never talked to them, the fact remains that we compete at the same stage, we share the same locker room, we share the same dining space."

For Montjane, her accomplishments are not just about her. She is looking out for the greater good of her community and those with disabilities.

Still, that doesn't mean that Montaje doesn't have dreams for herself.

"I want to be a champion. I want to be No. 1 in the world," she said. "And I know I can."