It seems forever since Jeff Coetzee was using a homemade wooden tennis racquet to hit the ball over an orange bag for a net with his brothers in their back garden in Okiep.
The 29-year-old tennis star soon rose through the ranks and was gracing the top tennis stages of the world, progressing to the doubles semifinal of the Australian Open in 2003 with Chris Haggard and reaching the world doubles ranking of number three.
But a serious car accident in February that year,which claimed the life of his nephew, put any further plans on hold as Coetzee battled at first just to walk normally again and then to make his way back to the big time.
“To be honest at first I didn’t really think I would ever play again but I had my brother Ivan by my side who has always been good with confidence and getting my mind right and he was just telling me to believe in myself. My faith also helped a lot,” explained Coetzee. “I will always remember Ivan for that. He passed away two months ago.”
Coetzee fought to get back on his feet and within six months he was given a second chance to once again play at the top level, making his comeback at the US Open in August.
Asked why he feels he was given that second chance, Coetzee reckoned: “I think there is more to life for me after tennis. Maybe it is to tell my story or maybe to view the world differently because I certainly have changed a lot after the accident. I don’t stress too much about little things and I appreciate life even more now.”
Coetzee said he could simply not see himself not being involved in the sport and the memory of his late nephew and brother have been a motivating factor in his return to professional tennis.
“I hear people say I have changed a lot in the sense that if I have an argument, whether I’m wrong or right, I will be the one to forgive first because who is to know what will happen once you get off the phone, walk out the door or drive away. I take it one day at a time and my family has always been very important to me and they come first, even more so now.
“I have been through a lot in the last three years and have been tested in many different ways but I remain positive and thank my mom Mary for always listening to her baby and keeping on motivating me.
“I also think to myself I’m very lucky when I see what is happening in the rest of the world with the wars and everything. The other day I was playing in a tournament in Indianapolis and visited a hospital and fell in love with this young girl who has cancer. She was so keen on hitting a ball and would not stop. It made me stop and realise how lucky I am to witness this and that I have been given a second chance.”
Having suffered from a dislocated hip and lacerations to the arm and leg, Coetzee’s body will never be the same as it was before the accident but that hasn’t stopped him from still wanting to achieve what he did before. Among his long-term aspirations is representing South Africa at the Olympics one day. Taking it one step at a time though, his first goal is simple: “I want to be healthy this year for the first time in four years without taking time off with my hip. So far so good and I think I want even more to reach my goals now but if I don’t, at least I have given it my best shot.
“I would love to feel what it is like to play in a grand slam semifinal and to win a big tournament again. I have been in five finals already so I’m getting close.”
As for his advice to others that might be in a similar situation to the one in which he found himself, Coetzee said: “Never give up! Sometimes the river gets a bit rough in your life but at the end of the river there is a calmness and that is what you have to strive for. Keep believing in yourself and take it one day at a time.” – Heartlines Features
By Karien Jonckheere