Leonard SolmsSpecially for ESPN5 minute reading
South Africa’s Donald Ramphadi may have won the French Open quad wheelchair doubles title with partner Andy Lapthorne, but due to a lack of funding, Ramphadi is still battling the odds ahead of Wimbledon.
Ramphadi was one of two South African wheelchair tennis champions at Roland Garos, with Kgothatso Montjane won the women’s wheelchair doubles title with Yui Kamiji.
Both players have spoken out about the minimal funding from South Africa’s Ministry of Sports, as well as the lack of major sponsors. Ramphadi has previously been forced to withdraw from matches due to malfunctions with his used wheelchair.
A big blow was when the local game’s major sponsor pulled their funding before COVID, Ramphadi told ESPN: “Airports Company [ACSA]which was the company that really made things happen in wheelchair tennis [withdrew support]. We used to have six tournaments in South Africa and now we are down to one.
“I knew it would affect us, especially because we don’t have proper sponsors individually. Most of the wheelchair tennis players were actually [relying on] Tennis South Africa to do most of the things for us.
“When we were told that everyone had to stand by us, we knew it was going to be really difficult, because in South Africa it is really difficult to get individual sponsors.”
Montjane, who is hoping for her first Wimbledon title after making her debut there in 2018, told ESPN last month: “I can only hope that all this inspires change. I want to see a difference. That’s why , I stick to this sport with all its challenges I do all this with the bare minimum.
“Everything I had here [in Paris] was just my agency going out and getting a few sponsors. I still don’t have everything a tennis player needs. It would break my heart if there is no change.”
Despite his funding challenges, Ramphadi, whose equipment is sponsored by Wilson, is nevertheless confident of making it to the All England Club this year.
“We celebrated [the French Open triumph]. That’s enough now. Back to work,” he told ESPN.
Ramphadi was fully able to work until he was 12, but osteogenesis imperfecta, otherwise known as osteoporosis, left him wheelchair bound. After playing soccer, the most popular sport in South Africa, he only started playing tennis in his late teens.
“I started playing tennis late [in] 2009 and I studied at Letaba Special School which is based in Tzaneen, Limpopo. I never saw myself playing tennis. I always thought it was a sport for white people. That’s the mentality I had,” Ramphadi recalled.
“I was bored the day I started playing tennis, so I thought, ‘Let me just go and try.’ the training. From then on, I fell in love with it.”
Wheelchair tennis rules are largely similar to able-bodied tennis, with the only major difference in the rules being that the ball is allowed to bounce twice instead of once.
After competing in the men’s wheelchair tennis main draw, Ramphadi was cleared to play quad wheelchair tennis in 2018.
Ramphadi explained, “When you play in the men’s [wheelchair tennis] division, this is when you have a disability on your legs, but if you have more problems on your legs and also on your body [including your playing arm]you will be classified as a quad player.”
Ramphadi knew immediately that when he was classified as a quad player, he would become one of the best in the world.
“The moment they classified me, I knew I was going to be big in this division,” he said.
“After we lost the sponsors, I knew it was going to be tough, but I also knew I wasn’t going to give up – [I was going to] go out there and play and try to finish in the top 10.”
Both Ramphadi and Montjane are united in their desire to inspire the next generation of black South Africans to take up tennis.
“I don’t like how I thought when I was young – I don’t like the things I thought about tennis being a white sport and all that. Now that I’m a grand slam champion, just to changing the way young children think at home is the goal,” said Ramphadi.
“In this world, [I want them] seeing nothing is impossible. See it and just follow it and work hard – nothing is impossible for all people, no matter who you are.”