SV Berliner Brauereien. Photo by Astrid Warberg
Waning public enthusiasm, diminishing cash flow and an impossible-to-emulate legacy from the 1980s when Germany dominated the sport have led to tennis falling into neglect in the last decade… Yet Berlin was once home to a vibrant tennis culture.
It may not be evident these days, but Germany has been tennis-keen since the birth of the sport. In 1892, only 19 years after Major Walter Clopton Wingfield designed the modern form of the game on an hourglass-shaped court at a Christmas garden party in Wales, the first German championships were staged, and the German Tennis Federation (DTB) was founded soon after in 1902.
From the get-go, German tennis players competed on the world stage as stars, like 1908 Olympic medallist Otto Froitzheim and the world-adored, Nazi-persecuted French Openwinner “Baron” Gottfried von Cramm, who ushered in a boom in the 1930s. Von Cramm, trained at Grunewald’s renowned Rot-Weiß, was part of a generation that then witnessed German tennis devastated by WWII, with players conscripted and killed, and many clubs and courts, like Rot-Weiß, destroyed by Allied bombing. Marked by the rebirth of the DTB in 1948, tennis culture in postwar Germany literally rose from the ashes, growing steadily through West, and to a much lesser extent, East Berlin.
The 1980s saw the golden age of German tennis. German players dominated the international scene, inspiring a public fervour now gapingly absent. Steffi Graf, oft cited as the world’s greatest female player ever, finished first globally for eight consecutive years, winning 22 Grand Slam singles titles along the way. In 1988 she became the first player to win the “Golden Slam”, the Holy Grail of tennis – all four Slams plus Olympic gold in one year. To many, seeing one of Graf’s single-handed slice backhands orpedo from the baseline, skew the court’s corner line by mere millimetres and race past an opponent’s outstretched racket appeared nothing less than divine.
If that wasn’t enough to rally the nation, in the men’s competition six-time Grand Slam winner Boris Becker (Wimbledon’s youngest champion at a freckly, baby-faced 17 in 1985) single-handedly sent sales of Puma rackets to German teens through the roof, carving up courts along with Wimbledon-winner Michael Stich, who led Germany in 1993 to its third Davis Cup win (the only others occurring in 1988 and 1989). Tennis fandom took on extreme heights, most violently in Hamburg in 1993 when Günter Parche, an obsessed fan of Steffi Graf, ran on court and stabbed American Monica Seles (then #1) between the shoulders with a boning knife. Parche was found to be mentally unstable and sentenced to two years probation, while Seles vowed never to play in Germany again.
While most fans kept their enthusiasm within legal bounds, such inspiring play proved nationally contagious; DTB membership hit an all-time high in 1994 with 2.3 million members. While tennis has always suffered prissy, bourgeois associations thanks to its privileged monastic roots in 13th-century northern France, athletic patriotism had a democratising effect as tennis fever seeped through to the lower classes and kids nationwide picked up rackets.
With Graf’s retirement in 1999 and memories of greatness growing hazy, German tennis today suffers from a deep malaise. Despite facing bankruptcy in 2004, DTB’s chairman Stephan Brune remains (officially) optimistic: “With 1.5 million members in 9000 tennis clubs and four million tennis players across Germany, DTB has a good basis for future growth.” However, without an obvious candidate to woo a new generation – though world #9 Angelique Kerber and #15, Berlin’s Sabine Lisicki, offer hope – infrastructure does little to stem the loss of sponsors and plummeting attendance and TV ratings plaguing German tennis. Since 1994, DTB’s membership numbers have dropped 33 percent.
The definitive sign of the sport’s sickly condition was the loss of the Ladies German Open after 29 years at Rot-Weiß. Following financial losses, being dumped by its major sponsor in 2003 and then failing to secure a new German sponsor, the WTA-owned event was bizarrely sold to Qatar for €6.7 million in 2006, running as the Qatar Telecom German Open from 2006-2008 before its eventual dissolution.