JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's Lucas Sithole made headlines last month by winning the men's wheelchair quad singles title at the U.S. Open tennis tournament. The triple amputee, 26, is now the world's number-two player in that division.
Wheelchair tennis player Lucas Sithole has become a household name in South Africa since his triumph at the U.S. Open in New York last month. As he trains on the court at the University of Johannesburg with his coach, the world #2 quad singles player recalls the long fight that took him toward the top of the sport.
Sithole lost both his legs and half of his right arm in a train accident when he was 11.
"It was difficult, because there was pain and everything. I remember the other morning I tried to wake up and walk to the bathroom, only to find out that I couldn't walk," he recalled. "But then from there I never thought of such a thing. I just kept on pushing up to today."
Sithole said he made his way out of depression thanks to the constant support of his family. Seven years ago, while in high school, he was introduced to basketball, rugby and tennis. Sithole said he chose tennis partly because there was a challenge.
"It's a sport that is not well-known in our country, and it's not usually played by a black person. So I wanted to take that challenge and see maybe if I can change that mind in people," he explained.
The very same year, Sithole met Holger Losch, who has been his coach ever since. Losch said the first time he met Sithole, the boy stood out.
"The first time we saw him we were inspired by Lucas's spirit. His ability to challenge anything that you offer him," Losch said. "Since that day we really thought Lucas's got some great potential."
Sithole moves around the court using his right elbow to control the wheelchair while holding the racket in his left hand. Before the accident, he was a natural right-hander, so he had to adapt when he took up tennis.
Losch said Sithole's disability is actually a slight advantage on the tennis court.
"Physically being triple amputee, specifically a double amputee, reduces a lot of the weight on the chair. That matches to his physical strength. His power to weight ratio is exceptional," Losch said. "That gives a physical advantage to a lot of players."
Sithole has been playing professionally for two and a half years, thanks to a residency program offered by the Ministry of Sport, and he competed in last year's London Paralympics.
Sithole is lucky but says a lot can be improved to support wheelchair tennis in South Africa. In fact, tennis struggles to shine next to national sports such as rugby and cricket.
But Sithole hopes that the spotlight he brings to the sport can help it to win more recognition.
"A lot of people, they don't know the sport. And lots of kids could be the future of the sport and they don't know it. So I think there is a lot to be done through media, so that people they can learn about the sport," he said.
Lucas Sithole's long-term goal is to play in the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil. Next month the champion will fly to California for the Master Series tournament. If he wins, he will become the men's world #1 player in quad singles wheelchair tennis.