When Mathabane is not quite 14, Mrs. Smith gives him an old wooden tennis racket and tells him she wants him to become the next Arthur Ashe. Mathabane doesn’t know the rules or how he’ll train, but he begins playing against a wall and enjoys the solitary nature of it.
This marks a new chapter in Mathabane’s life. Arthur Ashe was a legendary black tennis player from the U.S., and Mrs. Smith’s encouragement of Mathabane to emulate this athlete shows just how much confidence she has in Mathabane’s ability to succeed. Although Mathabane is an excellent student, tennis arguably opens as many doors as education, specifically since it creates opportunities for him to form relationships with supportive white liberals.
Along with playing tennis, Mathabane continues working to pay for school and baby food. He tells his mother that he wants to drop out at the end of the year to work in a factory and help her, but his mother insists that is the last thing she wants. She says that she’ll work herself to death to keep him Mathabane in school until he finishes his education. Mathabane knows she’s right, but it pains him to see her so exhausted all the time.
Although Mathabane can just barely afford to remain in school, his pain at seeing his exhausted mother suggests that along with the significant financial burden of school for poor people, there is an emotional burden as well when one watches their loved ones labor to fund their education.
When work becomes scarce, Mathabane spends more time practicing tennis against the wall. One day, a Coloured man named Scaramouche notices him and starts critiquing his form and offering tips. Since Coloured people are mixed race, they get slightly better treatment than black people and move a bit more freely. As such, Scaramouche has connections in both black and white tennis circles. He thinks Mathabane has potential, but needs training, so he decides to be his coach.
Scaramouche’s position in South Africa as a Coloured person reiterates apartheid’s obsession with maintaining its strict racial hierarchy, while also pointing to its arbitrary nature. Scaramouche is neither black nor white, so the government must create a classification in between the races, which, rather than separating him, lets him interact with both worlds.