Johannesburg – Lucas Sithole fell under a train at the age of 12, losing both his legs and half of his right arm. And that's exactly why in the world of quadriplegic wheelchair tennis, he is considered one of the lucky ones.
Sithole is ranked second in the world in the quads division, and this year has his sights set on unseating American world number one David Wagner, who has been the most dominant quads player for over a decade and is the South African's biggest challenge in this week's Airports Company South Africa SA Open at Ellis Park.
But it's because of the nature of his disability that Sithole has a very good chance of doing so.
“Lucas had no spinal cord injury, like most quads players. He is an amputee, so this gives him quite an advantage,” said Canadian Sarah Hunter, herself one of the top wheelchair tennis players in the world and a close friend of Wagner's.
“Most of us had spinal cord injuries. This means we have limited functionality in our hands, our wrists and our arms. And we're missing certain abdominal muscles as well.
“But a player like Lucas has full arm and upper body function, so this makes him much stronger.”
Apart from his greater strength, one of the key benefits of this is that Sithole can change his grip during play, where most quads players have to strap the racquet to their hands and have a fixed grip for the entire match.
Another key difference is that quads players with spinal cord injuries have largely lost their capacity to sweat. During a physical sport such as tennis, this becomes a slippery slope for them in terms of hydration during a match.
“Sweat cools the body down, and we don't have that. So playing in the heat is really a challenge for us,” she said.
“That's why most quads matches are scheduled first up or late in the day. Hydration is also a challenge because we have to hydrate, but can't drink too much. The whole preparation of taping your racquet to your hand takes times, so you don't want to be going to the toilet during a match.
“We can't drink too much, and need drinks with salt so we can retain water. But this also becomes a balancing act.”
These differences between Sithole and Wagner are seen in their styles of play. Wagner does not have as much raw strength, so relies on a silky touch and an incredible on-court strategy.
“David has such great touch. He eats, breathes and sleeps the strategy of tennis. He watches players like Federer and Nadal just to see their strategy and how they build a point,” Hunter said.
But with no legs, Sithole has his own challenges of balance in his wheelchair. He has two waterbottles that he straps to the front of his wheelchair to make up for the lack of forward weight.
“It just shows you that while we all might look the same, there are some very big differences.”
But in the mind of Sithole, the biggest difference is the 962
points that separate him and Wagner on the rankings.
And that's something he plans to change as soon as he can. – Sapa