Johannesburg – Fresh off winning the wheelchair quad singles title at the US Open tennis tournament on Sunday, Lucas Sithole is aiming for a medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
“We congratulate Lucas Sithole for this important achievement. It was no small feat. He has made both the government and the people of South Africa immensely proud,” President Jacob Zuma said in a statement on Tuesday after Sithole arrived at OR Tambo International Airport.
Sithole's coach Holger Losch hoped the player could go all the way in the Paralympic Games in Brazil.
It would be Sithole's second Paralympics after he was knocked out early in the London showpiece last year.
“Lucas competed at the 2012 Paralympics in London and it was just to get a feel for the event,” said Losch.
“In 2016 I believe he can compete for a medal.”
Sithole admitted he was nervous during the match, a feeling compounded by the passionate home crowd.
“The first set I couldn't serve because the crowd were shouting USA,” said the 26-year-old Sithole.
“I said it's fine, keep on shouting I will just keep playing. In the third set everything started to change.”
Sithole's world ranking rose one spot to second following the victory, which was the first major International Tennis Federation title for an African and South African.
The player credited Losch for improving his mental game, which was key to achieving the landmark win.
“My coach managed to put my head straight because I don't always behave,” Sithole said.
“It was my first time playing in a grand slam and I was very nervous.
“On the final day at the practice, it was windy and I was frustrated because I couldn't make the shots and the coach just told me to relax.”
Sithole lost both his legs and most of his right arm in a train accident in Dannhauser, KwaZulu-Natal in 1998.
He said his attitude changed once he realised he could still enjoy a full life.
“It all started when I accepted myself after my accident, I didn't stay indoors – I went to look for help and my primary school was a big help,” Sithole said.
Losch said wheelchair tennis had grown significantly in South Africa over the last decade.
“Nine years ago there were about three players playing wheelchair tennis in South Africa,” the coach said.
“Now there are about 500 children playing every week.
“We host six tournaments in SA on an annual basis and that's just great for the game.”
Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, said Sithole's rise to fame had helped raise awareness for the disabled.
“From Newcastle to New York that's quite a journey for Lucas,” she said.
“When people with special needs are recognised they can achieve anything.
“We would like to give Lucas a hero's welcome. He has flown the flag for SA.”
Tennis South Africa (TSA) president Bongani Zondi congratulated Sithole on his victory.
“We are proud as TSA to have a champion at long last and also a black South African,” Zondi said.
“We are proud of Holger and all the work Wheelchair Tennis South Africa are doing.” – Sapa