Lucas Sithole lost his first professional tennis match, 6-0, 6-0. Referred to as a ‘double bagel’, it is one of the most humbling sporting defeats possible. Undeterred, the future Grand Slam champion thought to himself, ‘I’ll get you next time.’ Two years later, he triumphed over that very opponent.
What’s clear from the second you meet him is that he doesn’t need anyone’s help. There’s a fierce sense of independence tangible in Lucas’ every move. He quickly lifts himself out of his wheelchair chair and into the chair he uses on the court. “I don’t want someone to feel sorry for me,” he says. “I want to overcome my challenges myself. It gives me the extra confidence.”
At 12-years old, he was in a devastating train accident that claimed both his legs and his right arm. He doesn’t go into too much detail, rather recalling the aftermath and lack of emotion he felt during his recovery. “I was still very young,” he offers. “I didn’t know what was happening. I wasn’t even crying. I can’t explain it…I didn’t think of anything, I didn’t feel anything, I was just there.”
After enrolling at a school for disabled children, the enthusiasm he saw in his peers and the encouragement he received made him want to try every sport he could. But it was the independent nature of wheelchair tennis that ultimately hooked him.
Lucas put in the work; training day and night, coaching himself until he was selected to play for the wheelchair tennis world cup team in 2008. He has since amassed a host of titles: he is the first African to win a US Open Grand Slam title and the first disabled sportsman to receive a nomination for Sport Star of the Year at the South African Sport Awards (2013).
Like his titles, mental strength is something that Lucas has in spades. Challenged by 21 Icons photographer Gary van Wyk to a match, his focus is remarkable, and he quickly and cheerfully dominates his able-bodied opponent. He serves with one hand. “I just throw it up and then I hit.”
One of the most successful and accomplished athletes in recent South African history, Lucas remains a slight enigma. Despite his achievements, he’s not yet a household name. Nor does he want to be. The determination to be number one might not grant him the anonymity he so appreciates though. “At the moment I’m ranked number 4 in the world,” he says. “ But soon, number 1. I promise.”
When Lucas dreams at night, he’s not always in his wheelchair. He talks about the old Lucas, the young boy who had two legs and both arms. He sees him when he dreams sometimes, not too far behind, always keeping up. “I think he is the one who is pushing my chair everywhere I go,” the tennis champ laughs. “I’m just sitting there.”