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Jozi wheelchair tennis idol topples world No 1


South Africa’s wheelchair tennis sensation, Lucas Sithole, is casting his net wider for new glory after defeating world No 1 quadriplegic tennis player David Wagner of the United States in the Airports Company of South Africa’s International Wheelchair Tennis tournament at Ellis Park in Johannesburg at the weekend.

The man they call “Twister” kept his cool in front of a jubilant home crowd after losing the first set to Wagner, rebounding in the second and going on to dominate the American in the third. It was sweet revenge for the 28-year-old triple amputee and University of Johannesburg sports management student.

The 3-6 6-3 6-3 upset comes just a week after Sithole lost the Gauteng Open in Benoni to Wagner.

The Newcastle-born Johannesburg resident also suffered two major losses against Wagner – in the 2013 and 2014 international wheelchair tennis championships. Second seed Sithole has been trading rackets with Wagner for some time, and beat the American in the 2013 US Open and Super Series Japan Open in May last year.

Sithole showed he was in a fighting mood when he beat world No 3 Andy Lapthorne of Britain in the semifinals on Friday. Saturday’s victory over Wagner represents a major personal and professional breakthrough for the young athlete.

He broke Wagner’s serve in the opening game of the final set and then held serve until the ninth game, when he broke Wagner again to win the decider.

“I made a very sloppy start in the first set,” Sithole acknowledged after the match. “He [Wagner] pushed me to the corner on my back hand and I couldn’t get any rhythm going. He broke me at an early stage and I lost important points, but I started playing my own game in the second set and things started to happen. I had a little talk with myself during the toilet break after the second set and then I came out to win the match,” he said.

“These two victories in the semifinals and final mean my coach [Holger Losch] and I are on the right track with my training and strategies. I am excited about the future and I am hungry for more victories. I am really thankful to ACSA for giving us two tournaments here at home and for everything they do for the development of wheelchair tennis. I saw a lot of kids out there and I hope I have inspired them to scale greater heights. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are – with hard work, dedication and a team like Wheelchair Tennis South Africa (WTSA) on your side, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

ACSA’s decade-long headline sponsorship of both the Gauteng and SA Open Wheelchair Tennis tournaments has put Johannesburg on the map of the rapidly-growing segment of the sport. WTSA at present boasts 500 players. The prestigious SA Open Series is one of only six of such events held each year. The other five are played in Australia, Japan, France, Britain and the United States.

Sithole, who survived a horrific train accident that claimed both his legs and his right arm at the age of 12, discovered wheelchair tennis in 2005 and turned professional a year later. He shook up the sport in 2013 by becoming the first African to win a Grand Slam title at the US Open – a feat for which he was voted disabled sportsman of the year and awarded the Order of the Ikhamanga by President Jacob Zuma.

He and fellow South African Kgothatso “KG” Montjane, who was knocked out of the women’s singles quarterfinals by Dutch third seed Marjolein Buis on Friday, are both expected to make a strong showing at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.