No legs and one arm but Lucas Sithole is a 'rolling inspiration'

Story highlights

  • Lucas Sithole became the first South African citizen to win a U.S. Open tennis title
  • Sithole beat world No. 1 David Wagner in the men's quad final in New York
  • The 27-year-old received a hero's welcome when he returned to South Africa
  • He lost both his legs and most of his right arm when he fell under a train aged 12

South Africa may just have found another Paralympian to inspire a nation -- and perhaps the world.

After "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius became the first double-amputee runner to compete at an Olympics, and Natalie Du Toit excelled in the pool, Lucas Sithole -- who lost both his legs and most of his right arm when he fell under a train aged 12 -- became the first South African to win a title at tennis' U.S. Open.

"Natalie made a huge impact on South African sport, the same as Oscar," the nation's Davis Cup captain, John-Laffnie De Jager, told CNN. "Lucas can play the same role."

Judging by the welcome he received in Johannesburg following his historic victory in New York in September, Sithole is well on his way.

A large crowd greeted Sithole at OR Tambo International Airport, where he signed posters that read, "Rolling Inspiration."

Reflecting on the scene, Sithole was still genuinely surprised.

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And why wouldn't he be? Such receptions for wheelchair tennis champions are highly unusual.

"I wasn't expecting it but at the end of the day I was happy to be honored like that," the 27-year-old told CNN. "People were calling my name and it was nice to get recognized even if I'm only in wheelchair tennis. It was actually awesome, man.

"Later on, even when I went from my house to the shop to buy bread, people still recognized me. I have no problem with that."

Boost for African tennis

His emergence as a tennis ace comes at a good time for South Africa, since the country's No. 1 in the ATP ranks, Kevin Anderson, hasn't played in the Davis Cup for two years. Anderson is married to an American and last year in an interview with the New York Times didn't rule out representing the U.S. in the future.

Liezel Huber, a former No. 1 in women's doubles, already changed her nationality, becoming an American citizen six years ago. She has since won three U.S. Open doubles titles.

And some will say Sithole can take over from Pistorius in capturing the hearts of South Africans after the latter's fall from grace.

There is no doubting that Pistorius' exploits on the track led to plaudits and a massive following -- without the use of half his legs he reached the semifinals at London 2012 competing against able-bodied athletes -- but his reputation has suffered since he was accused of murdering his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

"Lucas is fortunate that people in South Africa have already recognized athletes with a disability probably stronger than other countries," says Sithole's coach, Holger Losch.

South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, sent Sithole a message of congratulations for his achievement at Flushing Meadows when he downed David Wagner on the latter's home soil.

"It was no small feat," Zuma said in a statement. "He has made both the government and the people of South Africa immensely proud."

Even if the attendance on Court 11 couldn't match the buzz for the men's final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on gargantuan Arthur Ashe Stadium, the atmosphere was nonetheless raucous.

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Shouts of "USA, USA" were meant to encourage Wagner but Sithole rallied from a set down to beat the world No. 1 in three sets, shedding tears of joy when the finale concluded. A left-hander like Nadal, Sithole also hits with heavy spin on his forehand.

Prior to his accident -- Sithole said he preferred "not to go back there" when the incident was brought up in this interview -- he hadn't seen anyone play tennis. He picked up his first racquet only about seven years ago.

"Certainly I thought that Lucas could be a force in the future but I just didn't know how long it would take him," Wagner, who plays with his racquet taped to his right hand, told CNN. "He's very quick around the court and has good chair skills and some big shots."

Sithole and Wagner -- who are occasional doubles partners -- developed a rivalry in 2013, meeting nine times in singles since the end of May, and more battles are expected next year given they are the top two in the quads rankings.

Thinking further ahead, Sithole aims to be on the podium at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Wagner beat a then unseeded Sithole in the first round of the Paralympics in London a year ago.

'Double bagel' start

Sithole contested his first international wheelchair event in 2006 in the Netherlands, home to the most dominant wheelchair player of all time, Esther Vergeer. Wagner beat him in doubles and Sithole lost his opening singles match by the dreaded "double bagel" score of 6-0 6-0.

"He's done exceptionally well to get to where he is now in a short time," said Losch. "His character is the thing that drives him the hardest and he relishes playing on the big stage. He's very competitive.

"If you look at Lucas physically you'd think of all kinds of reasons he'd struggle to do stuff but when you get to know him, you see that he takes on challenges. He lives his life to the fullest."

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Attending a primary and secondary school for the physically disabled changed Sithole's mindset for the better as he saw fellow students thriving. And that has come full circle, as pupils from one of his former schools were among those who saluted him at the airport.

Amassing more grand slam titles will only strengthen Sithole's profile, said De Jager, who rose to No. 11 in the world in doubles after overcoming a heart condition at birth.

"I think it's going to be key for him now to keep improving and try and win some more big tournaments," he said. "I think if that happens it would be huge for tennis in South Africa, especially wheelchair tennis."

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