Alexander Zverev and then? Becker and Rittner analyse the plight of German Pro Tennis

Saturday, 15 June 2024 at 22:51
Alexander Zverev has given tennis Germany a moment of glory by reaching the final at the French Open. Not much was missing for the DTB's first Grand Slam title in the men's singles for 28 years. However, Zverev's fantastic development is diametrically opposed to that of German professional tennis. Because there is a huge gap behind the Hamburg native. There is a need for action.

Alexander Zverev - and then?

If you look at the first two Grand Slam competitions of the season, the answer can only be: not much! Ten German professionals - five women, five men - competed at the Australian Open. Half of them were eliminated in round one and Zverev was alone from round three onwards. It was a similar picture at the French Open recently.
There were seven men and six women in the main draw at Roland Garros. Only Jan-Lennard Struff, Tamara Korpatsch and Zverev got past the first hurdle. From the round of 16 onwards, only the Olympic champion from Hamburg represented the German colours.
The fact that Zverev played a fantastic tournament, dominating clay court king Rafael Nadal at the start and only losing to Carlos Alcaraz in a thrilling final match, was a tennis feast for Germany. At the same time, the 27-year-old's performance glossed over a lot of the problems at the German Tennis Federation (DTB). "I'm worried," admitted Boris Becker in an interview with Eurosport. There is "a big gap" behind Zverev. The realisation is not new, the negative development has been observable for years - and it stood out because the drop was glaring.

A look at the world rankings reveals the misery

Between 2013 and 2018, there were five women's singles Grand Slam finals with German participation and three titles won by Angelique Kerber. Four players (Kerber, Sabine Lisicki, Andrea Petkovic, Julia Görges) made it into the top 10 of the world rankings in these years. However, there are currently no Germans in the top 50 of the WTA rankings.
Things are looking better for the men, who lagged behind the Kerber generation in the "golden years". Zverev is in fourth place, Struff in 35th, but the truth is that Germany has only one professional tennis player in the top 100, Jule Niemeier, who is younger than 25 - including men.
There are difficulties with the 18 to 21-year-olds, says Becker: "If they come from the youth sector, I don't see enough good players who can assert themselves."
Alexander Zverev with the Rome Open trophy.
Alexander Zverev with the Rome Open trophy.

DTB counteracts this with a competitive sports concept

Given the current overall situation, the poor result at Roland Garros was to be expected. "The performance of the German women at the French Open was not satisfactory. It once again clearly shows the necessity of our new competitive sports concept," said the German Tennis Federation (DTB) in response to a Eurosport enquiry. For the men, the performance in Paris was "positive overall".
After all, five professionals had advanced to the second round and thus surpassed last year's result. The aforementioned competitive sport concept could be the key to heralding a turnaround in German tennis. "The approach is good, I worked on the concept myself.
Seven main points were defined. These include the tournament landscape, tournament support and the role of the national coaches," explained Eurosport expert Barbara Rittner, who was in charge as captain of the Fed Cup team, national coach and Head of Women's Tennis from 2005 to 2024.
A "great concept" with a clear strategy had been drawn up, but: "Now it's all about implementation. In my time, this is the third concept we have developed at the DTB. The problem is that they are sometimes implemented more, sometimes less. You can't develop a player on the drawing board. It has to happen on the court. You can have the best concept in a drawer ... you have to implement it," demands the 51-year-old, hinting that this is where the problem lies.

Becker: "For me, it's not a question of money"

Becker would also like to see more intensive involvement of former professionals, including himself. "I was already team manager and Head of Men's Tennis, but I stepped down for personal reasons. For me, it's not a question of money, I did it on a voluntary basis back then and would do it again," emphasises the six-time Grand Slam tournament winner.
Together with Dirk Hordorff, who has since passed away, he came up with a number of ideas to initiate a positive trend. "Last summer, the new DTB President, Dietloff von Arnim, approached me. He would like to talk to me about whether I could imagine being involved again. "I'm still waiting for that conversation today," says Becker. Nevertheless, von Arnim has since contacted the 56-year-old. A first step.

Boris Becker brings Stich and Graf into play

However, Becker would also like others to do more. "Rainer Schüttler is doing the Fed Cup. That's two or three weeks a year. That's it. Andrea Petkovic worked 30 days for the DTB last year. That's not enough. We have a Wimbledon winner Michael Stich, a Wimbledon winner Steffi Graf. We have Philipp Kohlschreiber, who has only just retired. Angie Kerber will have to be addressed at some point when she is no longer playing actively," says the man from Leimen, who triggered a tennis boom in Germany in the 1980s.
Rittner agrees, but also points out the different roles of those involved: "The coaching job is clear. You're on the court day after day. Ex-professionals don't normally want to do that. Andrea Petkovic, on the other hand, is a mentor at the DTB. I don't think 30 days is enough. So far this year it's ten to twelve days." Rittner emphasises that Petkovic is "so valuable" for the DTB.
Nevertheless, the intensity of the coaching is crucial. "It's important to build up a close relationship. These are young people who also need to be guided, who need a carer." This is all in the new concept, which was developed at the end of 2023.
Alexander Zverev at Roland Garros.
Alexander Zverev at Roland Garros.

DTB gets specific: more professionals in the top 100

Those responsible did not shy away from setting specific targets. By 2027, the DTB wants to have at least five professionals in the top 100 for both men and women. In the range up to rank 500, there should be six each who are under 23 years old. It also wants to see one player in the round of 16 at every Grand Slam event.
Two Olympic medals are expected in 2028, and up to ten women and men should have reached the top 100 in the world rankings by 2032. Ten talents in the U21 age group are expected to be among the top 400.

Digital schooling "not an option" for German talent

These are ambitious targets. Knowing full well that Germany is at a competitive disadvantage compared to some other nations in one important area. It's about the school system. "Digital schooling exists abroad. Coco Gauff says that she hasn't been to school since the age of twelve," says Rittner. This allows young professionals to travel the world all year round, take part in tournaments and still complete their schooling.
And in this country? "Exclusively digital schooling is not an option in Germany due to the education system," says the DTB. "But I expect the people in the association to get to grips with it and push the issue," Rittner counters. The coaches' hands are tied when it comes to this issue. The low-pressure area that has settled over German tennis will not move on any time soon in view of the wide range of problems. Patience is required - and as long as that is the case, the hopes for the really big successes rest solely on the shoulders of Alexander Zverev.

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