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Tennis in Reunified Germany: Then and Now

This weekend, Germany celebrated the 25th anniversary of its reunification. Not only had the country been split into West and East after the Second World War, but the completion of the Berlin Wall in 1963 appeared to make the separation even more irreversible. Twenty-six years later, however, the Wall fell and “what belongs together is now growing together” — as late Chancellor Willy Brandt said.

But what has all that got to do with tennis?

TTI’s resident German René Denfeld juxtaposes his home country’s history and everyone’s favorite yellow fuzzy ball — and how some of the effects have seemed to last until this very day.

I very much identify myself as a child of the unified Germany.

At 27 years of age, I simply don’t know any different. I can’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the first few years afterwards are barely more than hazy memories of my toddler-dom. Mind, that is not to say that the dark chapters of our country’s past century haven’t been a constant companion throughout my school days and often beyond — on the contrary, in fact.

In the run up to this weekend, I went back to a topic I had been looking into previously but never took enough time to pursue properly — tennis in East Germany.

On the 25th anniversary, the time felt right to try and answer the following question:

“With Germany reunified — can the same be said for tennis in Germany, too?”

In an attempt to find an answer to said question, it’s paramount that we travel back into the 1970s and 1980s. Tennis couldn’t have had a more different standing in East and West Germany at the time. In the former German Democratic Republic, the sport was never allowed to gain proper traction. Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) sports officials branded it as “a sport of the bourgeoisie in the spa towns and rich neighborhoods” around the world. In addition, tennis never performed well in the “benefit-cost-analysis” of the GDR and barely received any support.

East Germany’s best player Thomas Emmrich (sound familiar? Yes, he’s Martin Emmrich’s father) was barely allowed to compete outside of Germany, despite his immense talent. Emmrich himself stated in a 2012 interview that “he should’ve left the GDR from a mere tennis point of view,” but since his parents were in the party, the repercussions for them would have been severe.

One Martina Navratilova dated East Germany’s frowned-upon tennis prodigy for a while (she said he was her first boyfriend), and at a convention in 2013, she talked about his struggle as an athlete:

“He would’ve won Wimbledon. There’s no doubt in my mind that this man would’ve been a Grand Slam champion.”

On the other side — literally and figuratively — tennis grew more and more popular in West Germany, particularly among the middle class. Steffi Graf and Boris Becker helped a then-growing sport gain even more visibility and truly transcend into the mainstream. So much so, that even many people in East Germany were glued to the TV, witnessing the tennis fairlytale much to the dismay of SED officials – but that didn’t change the fact that a third of Graf’s fan mail came from East Germany.

A few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the 22-time Grand Slam champion competed at the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden. The top seed won the title by defeating Navratilova in four sets in the championship match, but she almost sounded like she’d rather be in Berlin.

“I would love to have done it — just to be a part of the moment!,” said the quiet and introverted Graf circa 1989 about the prospect of partying at the Berlin Wall.

A month later, Graf was asked whether there were any female players from the GDR that could make an impact on the WTA tour and the German did not exactly mince her words:

“There are none to speak of.”

Little did the then-20-year-old know, this assessment would continue to carry immense weight over the course of the next 25 years. Ever since Germany’s reunification, there have been next to no top players from areas comprising the former East Germany breaking through on the WTA or the ATP tours. Jana Kandarr — a native of Halle (Saale) in Saxony-Anhalt who reached the fourth round of the Australian Open in 2000 and a career-high ranking of No. 43 in June 2001 — springs to mind, but Kandarr moved to Karlsruhe as a 14-year-old shortly after the reunification. The aforementioned Martin Emmrich was born in Magdeburg, and although he had the genes to succeed, he’s lived his touring life exclusively on the doubles court — and has yet to make the third round of a Grand Slam in the discipline.

When Germany faced Sweden in the Davis Cup final in December 1989, it was one of the first sporting events to take place following the fall of the Berlin Wall. While none of the players on the team were from the former GDR, quite a number of people nonetheless made the trip to Stuttgart in Germany’s southwest. One of them was a (non-related) namesake of “Bumm-Bumm-Boris:” Rolf Becker, the voluntary press manager for the GDR’s tennis federation for 25 years. “The other Becker” has himself admitted that the glamorous West German tennis scene was almost disconcerting — but also hoped that East Germany would soon catch up and adopt tennis at one of its mainstream sports.

A quarter of a century later, tennis in Germany has advanced to becoming more of a mass sport — as there are currently five ATP and WTA events staged in the country — but the investments that have been made have not resulted in more than one or two top athletes emerging from the eastern states of Germany. Two big issues struck the German Tennis Federation (DTB) right after the reunification, and the cycle has repeated itself elsewhere, as these issues currently exist elsewhere in the present state of the ATP and WTA.

“How do you grow tennis in a country without a significant tennis history?”

Attempting to create successful and profitable tennis — without a star face to carry it — is of the main challenges of the WTA at the moment after its rapid expansion into Asia and Li Na’s retirement at the end of last year. The German Tennis Federation faced a very similar problem back in the 1990s. That key figure of East German tennis, Thomas Emmrich, was considered too old to finally start competing on tour. Behind him, there was no actual tennis tradition in East Germany, and the club and league system that was working so well in the West had yet to be established properly. On the other hand, in the golden age of German tennis, many accused the DTB of coasting on the wave of success instead of working towards the time “after the legends” — something the ATP has had to hear a fair number of times in recent years.

The German Tennis Federation saw several things slip through its hands after the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s: the number of tournaments shrunk significantly, with none remaining in the east. The “development east” that was talked about in Stuttgart in 1990 didn’t turn out to be quite as effective as many had hoped, and the decided lack of a top player from the eastern states speaks far louder than I wish it would. However, a small step towards bringing tennis to the eastern parts of the country will take place in 2016: the German Fed Cup team will host its first round tie with Switzerland in Leipzig.

Twenty-five years after two Germanys became one, tennis in the country might be on a united front, but there’s still a lot of growing to do.

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About René Denfeld (202 Articles)
Weather is my business. Tennis is my playground. Born in the year of the Golden Slam. Just give me all the bacon and eggs you have.

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