Yearning for the Golden Age of German Tennis
Another rising star crashes to earth.
Recent early exits from major tournaments have compounded the frustration of Germany's latest crop of tennis players. For the former tennis superpower, the continued under-achievement is hard to take.
If you can hear applause at the end of a tennis match featuring one of the latest breed of German stars these days, chances are it will be for the other player. The winner, in other words.
It seems the golden days of Boris Becker, Steffi Graf and Michael Stich are now firmly the stuff of legend, as Germany's most recent crop continues to under-achieve. Not including the blip on the form guide that allowed Tommy Haas to reach the semi-finals of the Australian Open and gave Rainer Schüttler passage to the Melbourne final in January, Germany's rising stars have yet to reach the stratospheric heights once dominated by their fellow countrymen and women.
The most recent disappointing evidence of Germany's decline comes from the Masters tournaments played out on the courts of Europe over the last two months. Excluding Schüttler's progress to the quarter-final in the Italian Masters in Rome, Germany's players have most recently faltered in the early stages on home soil in the Berlin and Hamburg Opens. In the women's championships in Berlin a week ago, both Anca Barna and Marlene Weingartner crashed out in the second round, while Nicolas Kiefer made an even earlier exit in Hamburg a few days later, surrendering in the first.
A once proud and talented tennis nation, Germany's recent problems cannot be blamed purely on the lack of naturally gifted stars. Those who represent their country are far from being any old sloggers you could find wheezing through a knock-about in the local park on a lazy Sunday. So where did it all go wrong?
As with many sports facing a crisis, money seems to be the root of the current evil German tennis finds itself faced with. Last year, the German Tennis Federation faced bankruptcy and only a last-minute agreement saved the governing body from the ignominy of collapse.
The federation eventually struck a deal with its creditor banks in December with the prospect of a lean Christmas chilling German bones. The banks finally agreed to drop €3.47 million ($4 million) of debt and gave the organization four years to pay back another €3.47 million. The state tennis federations contributed a further €800,000. The national federation also made cost-cutting promises, planning to trim down prize money at German events.
The arrangement struck last year also ensured the survival of two of Germany's most prestigious clay court tournaments -- the two where Germany's stars have most recently faltered: the women's German Open in Berlin and the men's event in Hamburg.
"We now have a good economic perspective for the coming year and the chance to reach stability," said German Tennis Federation President Georg von Waldenfels at the time. It was an optimistic response from the head of an organization that continues to be hit by declining television revenues, loss of sponsors and plummeting interest among the German public that has been nose-diving since Germany's big name players retired from the sport.
But it was once all so very different. German tennis fans can look back with misty eyes to the halcyon period of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s when Becker and Stich dominated the men's game and Graf was consistently the number one woman.
Those who wish to reminisce would be hard pushed to find a more worthy memory than the moment a 17-year-old Boris took the crown at Wimbledon. Solace in recent failures may be gained from reviewing the staggering number of titles Graf took during her career. If you're looking for comfort to see you through these barren times, Mrs. Agassi won 22 Grand Slam championships and numerous others of the Woman's Tour circuit. Failing that, someone must have a video of the 1991 Wimbledon Championships where Stich beat Jim Courier, defending champion Stefan Edberg and three-time winner Boris Becker in consecutive rounds to lift the All England Club's golden cup.
If that's not enough to ease the pain of watching the fallen giant regularly exiting major tennis championships across the globe, then you can brave the creaking knees of the Master's circuit where Boris and Michael continue to bash little yellow balls at each other in their eternal rivalry.
Those fans looking to the future may even be dreaming of the day when little Noah and Elias Becker meet to battle over the world's most prestigious titles just as the Williams sisters do today. Then again, Jaiden Gil Agassi might have something to say about that.