The Covid-19 lockdown restrictions may have caught most of us with our pants down – at times quite literally in those Zoom meetings – but that was never going to be the case for Kgothatso “KG” Montjane.
Unlike the rest of us, the South African women’s wheelchair tennis superstar, who this week joined other household names Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk, Chad le Clos and Lucas Radebe as a Discovery Vitality ambassador, had a cunning plan to distract herself from sitting in state at home.
Said plan was to approach her therapist the moment she heard the country was going into the lockdown. So while relationships crashed and burnt, and scores of people went into depression and suffered anxiety attacks, Montjane had her coping mechanisms of 1 000-piece puzzles and books.
“The point of the puzzles was to help [me] with focus, concentration and patience,” she explained from her pre-Australia Open training base in Epping, outside Melbourne, last week.
“It’s like, in the midst of so many things, you’re basically looking for one piece and what it would take for you to find it. It takes a lot of focus and concentration to say ‘this is the piece’. And patience, because if you don’t have it, solving puzzles becomes a problem.”
Montjane’s therapist also prescribed that her patient visualise playing tennis as another form of distraction, given that she wasn’t going to play for a while.
“She had me visualising playing tennis in my head, saying: ‘You can’t play tennis out of your home, but you can still play tennis.’
“When I went through all those things, it actually made me feel at ease because I didn’t worry about not playing tennis because I could visualise it – it really works.”
Alas, Montjane also found out the hard way that visualisation and the real thing aren’t exactly the same thing when she finally got to play tennis at the delayed French Open late last year.
“My tennis was so badly affected. I’m not a grassroots crafted tennis player – I first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of 19. So, most of the time, I’ve relied on [raw] talent and hard work. Not being able to do it physically, I sort of lost my touch, and the first couple of weeks I felt weird and awkward – almost as if I couldn’t play any more.”
But for her, this year began much like the rest of us would have loved ours to, starting with the Discovery ambassador deal, which is aligned to her sports development NGO work.
“As someone born with a disability, being active has been my thing – not only keeping me fit, but also helping with my disability because, the fitter I’ve become, the more active and independent I’ve become.
“So I’m happy to be associated with a brand like them [Discovery], and to make sure I speak the same language as them by encouraging others to go out and live active lifestyles. It means a lot to me because being active has done a lot for me from the first time I was recruited into sport at the special school.
“From then, I could walk distances and was active, so this will set me up as a good role model for other people with disabilities to see that being active does wonders for your wellbeing, and it’s not always about competing.”
More importantly, the tennis side of the new year has begun promisingly.
“I won my first match this year!” laughs the world number six and Africa and South Africa number one.
“It’s a good start. Today I had a tough one against the world number one [Holland’s Diede de Groot at the Victoria Open].
“But it was a good match and I was so close to her, losing 5-7, 4-6, which is the closest I’ve been to her in a long time.
“So I’m pretty confident I’m where I need to be, because when we checked the match stats, I lost mostly from unforced errors, so there are a lot of positives to take from that.”
As the final part of her preparations before the Australian Open begins tomorrow, Montjane competed in the Melbourne Open this week. But at 34 going on 35 (her birthday is in June), which makes the Paralympian (2008, 2012 and 2016) the second-oldest top 10-ranked player, is she worried about running out of time before converting her many grand slam singles semis into a final and a trophy?
“To be honest, yeah,” she chuckles. “I always tell my team I just need that breakthrough. If I won a grand slam, I would even hang up my tennis racquet. I’m really anxious about it, but I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself, so I try not to think about it a lot because it’ll affect the results on court. For me, it’s about stringing a few good matches back to back because there are just eight of us in grand slams, so if I can string two matches back to back.”
That said, Montjane’s not exactly thinking the end is nigh, mostly because she expects to finish her tennis career later because she started late.
Also, there’s the small matter of the postponed Paralympics to look forward to this year: “I’ve been speculating in my head that I need to embrace the fact that this upcoming Australian Open and the next two grand slams might be the only tournaments I play before the Paralympics.
“Because most tournaments are being postponed or cancelled because of Covid-19, I’m aligning myself with the idea that I may have to use fewer tournaments as preparation for the Paralympics, and we’re not even sure that they will take place – but the aim is to not lose focus on that goal.”
I always tell my team I just need that breakthrough. If I won a Grand Slam I would even hang up my tennis racquet