Motlojoa: Lesotho’s brightest tennis star

Motlojoa: Lesotho’s brightest tennis star

Maseru – Kukutla Motlojoa is one with the tennis racquet, his playing style both smooth and commanding.
Perhaps this prowess shouldn’t be a surprise.
At 19, Motlojoa has already been playing the game for nearly 15 years and, as he speaks, his passion for tennis is abundantly clear.
This dedication to his craft has made Motlojoa one of Lesotho’s brightest young sporting talents. Today he is based in the United States, on the next leg of a long journey he hopes will eventually lead him to the professional ranks.

“I started playing tennis at four years old,” Motjojoa says as thepost meets him during his break back home.
“My father was a tennis player; he taught me tennis at the age of four,” he adds.

“I used to go to the tennis court with him and that is when I started playing tennis. It was before I had knowledge of anything else, before I could say I want to play football or any other sport code. I grew up in the environment of tennis. I started slowly and now I have almost 15 years playing tennis.”
So far the fruits of this long labour are good.

In 2014, Motlojoa won a scholarship through Grey College in South Africa to go to the United States and study at the New Mexico Military Institute, an experience he describes as life-changing. There Motlojoa is among a community of hopefuls from around the globe that are privy to the best tennis coaching and facilities. “Playing internationally is nice, I like it,” he says.

“I enjoy playing with different people, not only that, but one gets a chance to make friends and talk to them. They explain to you how they play tennis in their different countries and you learn. Those things that you find helpful you take them and implement them into your game. But, the big issue is to make friends. Yes, when we play on the court we are all serious because we want to win but after that we are friends no matter what,” he continues.
Motlojoa’s new surroundings are a far cry from the struggles he faced when young.

Born on January 6, 1998 in Haramokhele, Mafeteng, Motlojoa studied at Community Centre Primary School in Berea where the closest tennis facilities were the national courts all the way in Maseru.

The firstborn of Retšelisitsoe and ‘Mamokete Motlojoa, he would make the trek with his young brother, Nyathi, and their father would coach them in often demanding one-on-one sessions. “I used to go to the Lesotho Lawn Tennis Association courts with my brother and practice with him while our father was watching,” he says. “I practiced with my younger brother a lot.”

When Motlojoa moved to Ladybrand High School in 2011, making it easier for him to play tennis was at the heart of the decision.
“I went to Ladybrand so that I wouldn’t miss school,” he explains. “Here in Lesotho, when schools were closed there were no tournaments; there would only be tournaments when schools were open. In South Africa there were tournaments during the holidays when schools were closed.”
2011 is the same year Motlojoa began competing on the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) African junior circuit.

It was during this time, amid endless hours of training and watching favoured players such as Rafael Nadal, that his game was moulded.
Motlojoa played at the U18 Mauritius Open in 2011 and the African Junior Championships in Egypt in January 2012. He was chosen for the junior World Championships in Qatar in April 2012 after his displays in Egypt and again competed at the African Champs later in the year in Namibia.
During those early years on the ITF circuit, the dedication of Motlojoa’s family helped overcome several challenges the youngster faced.
“Going out to international tournaments was very challenging because it required support financially but, thankfully, I had a father who managed to help me in those challenges,” he says.

“It doesn’t mean that he could do everything but he did the best he could to help me. There were challenges with equipment, facilities and many other things but the main problem was participating and competing in tournaments.”
In 2014 Motlojoa moved to Grey College in Bloemfontein.

By now he was ranked fifth in Africa in junior doubles. He competed at the 2014 African Junior Championships 2014 in Kenya and won bronze in the doubles at the African Union Sports Council (AUSC) Region 5 Under-20 Games in Zimbabwe in December 2014.

His performances led to his qualification for the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Games in Samoa and won admirers far and wide.
“A girls coach at New Mexico Military Institute named Dan O’Connell, who had lived in Lesotho for 15 years, needed players,” Motlojoa says.
“I was recommended to him by the ITF development officer in South Africa, and then he started negotiating with my father. That’s how I ended up getting the scholarship to go to the US.”

Upon his arrival in the United States in 2016, Motlojoa immediately had the chance to meet his role models, Spain’s 15-time Grand Slam winner Nadal and eccentric Frenchman Gael Monfils.
“I had always been watching them on screen, but seeing them live, shaking hands with them and also getting an autograph from Gael Monfils was true happiness to me,” he beams.

Inspiration is indeed much easier to meet in the United States where the professional ATP Tour, with all its top stars such as Nadal, Monfils, Andy Murray and others, frequently visits.

“I have had a chance to play with highly experienced players and that has taught me to improve my game-play and work hard because those people are serious with this sport,” Motlojoa says of his time so far at the New Mexico Military Institute.
“The most important issue is fitness and the way they hit the ball. We can all hit the ball but the point is what you do with the ball,” he continues.
“What is your game plan? The one who wins is the one who is able to capitalise where necessary and those minor things are the crucial things that we have to take into consideration.”

It is clear his international exposure has played a major role in Motlojoa’s development as a tennis player.
“I observe how people react in different situations. I play at the baseline while most people like to play close to the net so I always try to learn,” he adds.

Motlojoa’s big dream, of course, is to turn professional and someday compete on the ATP Tour against his idols.
“I am now at school, I am playing for the college (New Mexico Military Institute) after which I will go to university to get a degree,” Motlojoa says.
“The whole process is something that is going to take me more like three to four years to complete, then after that I will look to play on the professional level. I am intending to go professional but there is a long way ahead of that,” he continues.
Indeed, the immediate future has more junior competitions on the horizon.

From July 5 to 10 Motlojoa will be at the KZN TSA Series in Durban before jetting off to compete at the Botswana Open from July 17 to 24.
It is probably a taste of the busy schedule that will one day come. Motlojoa, certainly, has the world at his hands – his tennis racquet to be more exact.

Mohloai Mpesi

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