Can Donald Ramphadi win Wimbledon in a secondhand wheelchair?

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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 against the odds ahead of Wimbledon.

Ramphadi was one of two South African wheelchair tennis champions at Roland Garos, with Kgothatso Montjane winning the women’s wheelchair doubles title with Yui Kamiji.

Both players have spoken out about the minimal funding from South Africa’s sports ministry, as well as a lack of major sponsors. Ramphadi has been forced to retire from matches in the past due to faults with his secondhand wheelchair.

A big blow was when the local game’s major sponsor withdrew their funding before COVID, Ramphadi told ESPN: “Airports Company [ACSA], which was the company that was really making things happen in wheelchair tennis [withdrew support]. We used to have six tournaments in South Africa and now we’re down to one.

“I knew it was going to affect us, especially because we don’t have proper sponsors individually. Most 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 ourselves, that was when we knew it was going to be really difficult, because in South Africa, it’s 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 hang onto this sport with all its challenges. I’m doing all this with the bare minimum.

“All I had here [in Paris] was just my agency who went out and got a couple of sponsors. I still don’t have everything that a tennis player needs. It would break my heart if there’s no change coming up.”

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-bodied until the age of 12, but osteogenesis imperfecta, otherwise known as brittle bone disease, left him wheelchair-bound. Having previously played football, the most popular sport in South Africa, he only took up tennis in his late teens.

“I started playing tennis late [in] 2009 and I was studying at Letaba Special School, which is based in Tzaneen, Limpopo. I never saw myself playing tennis. I always thought that it’s a white people sport. That’s the mentality that I had,” Ramphadi recalled.

“I was bored the day I started playing tennis, so I thought: ‘Let me just go and try it out.’ When I started to play, I was told that I had a talent. From there, my teachers monitored me at practice. Going forward, I fell in love with it.”

Wheelchair tennis’s rules are largely similar to able-bodied tennis, with the only major difference in rules being that the ball is allowed to bounce twice rather than once.

Having competed in the main wheelchair tennis men’s draw initially, Ramphadi was cleared to play quad wheelchair tennis in 2018.

Ramphadi explained: “When you play in the men’s [wheelchair tennis] division, that’s when you have a disability on your legs, but if you have more problems on your legs and also at your body [including your playing arm], you’ll be classified as a quad player.”

Ramphadi knew immediately that when he was classified as a quad player that he would become one of the best in the world.

“The moment they classified me, I knew that 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 knew also that I was not going to give up – [I was going to] go out there and play and try end up in the top 10.”

Both Ramphadi and Montjane are united by their desire to inspire the next generation of Black South Africans to take up tennis.

“I don’t like how I was thinking when I was young – I don’t like the things I was thinking, that tennis was a white sport and all that. Now that I am a grand slam champion, just to change the way that young kids are thinking at home is the aim,” Ramphadi said.

“In this world, [I want them] to see nothing is impossible. See that and just follow it and work hard – there’s nothing impossible for all people, no matter who you are.”

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