Mark spends his early years afraid of the police, afraid of whites, and consistently hungry. His father is arrested several times, and each time, the family suffers. But his mother is determined that, despite their poverty, Mark will go to school. She takes the time to go through the impossible bureaucratic system, and to get Mark's papers in order so that the primary school will admit him. She makes Mark promise that he'll try to go to school and stay in school, for her sake.
The family never has enough money to pay for Mark's school fees, uniforms, and books, so he is constantly punished at school. But he persists and ends up in the top 1% of his class. His grandmother gets a job with a white family (the Smiths) that sends books and tennis rackets to Mark. Both help him. The books help Mark with his English ,and the tennis racket opens worlds he never imagined before. Mark finds an unofficial coach, joins the tennis team in secondary school, moves on to the elite Barretts Tennis Ranch, and finally meets a professional tennis player (Stan Smith) who mentors. Smith encourages Mark him to keep trying and agrees to look into the matter of tennis scholarships at American universities.
Mark is surprised when he fails his matric. It turns out that he only failed his native tongue, Venda, so the examination committee issues him a second-class pass – not good enough to attend a black college in South Africa. Further, Mark enters the Sugar Circuit and plays in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and loses both matches, and spraining his ankle. Life doesn't seem like it's moving along very well for Mark and he begins to wonder what he's doing and whether he'll make it to America.
Because he only received a second-class pass, Mark can't go on to one of the black colleges. Instead, he gets a job at Barclays Bank and helps his family while he waits to hear from the colleges to which he's applied.
Even though he has a good job at the bank, Mark keeps his dream of playing tennis in American alive. He wants to go to America, to experience what it's like to be free, and to get a good education. It takes time, but the wait is worth it. Eventually Stan Smith and Stan's coach at USC work on his behalf, and Mark receives a scholarship from Limestone College in South Carolina.
Even though Mark has received a tennis scholarship to an American college, it's not clear whether the South African government will allow him to go. But Stan Smith pulls some strings, and once Mark has an American visa, the government issues him a passport. Mark is off to America.
His bags are packed and Mark is ready to leave for America. As he says goodbye to his family, he realizes that his father is sorry to see him go; Mark's father realizes that Mark loves him no matter what. Mark wonders what is in store for his family, and whether they will make it through the four years while he's in America. For a minute, he thinks about turning back, but he continues forward to his future.