Dominik Koepfer’s Rise to Tennis Stardom: From Underdog to Challenger

Daniil Medvedev is annoyed. The fifth-seeded Russian has just lost the first set in the fight for the quarter-finals at the 2019 US Open – against a 25-year-old from the Black Forest, whose name hardly anyone knew until then. Dominik Koepfer played himself into a frenzy at the time, sensationally fighting his way into the round of 16 in New York as a qualifier – and in doing so caused a real sensation in the tennis world for the first time.

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Despite leading the set, it was not quite enough to win against Medvedev, who then made it to the final. After a tough battle over four sets, Koepfer’s dream run came to an end. Nevertheless, it is matches like these that the tennis pro still draws from.

“These are definitely good experiences that also give you self-confidence if you can keep up,” said Koepfer, who is now Germany’s number three, in an exclusive interview with SPORT1 at the BMW Open in April.

Dominik Koepfer played one of the biggest matches of his career in the round of 16 of the US Open against Daniil Medvedev in 2019

“Pitbull” Koepfer takes off in the rankings

Unlike his sensational run in New York in 2019, the German now has more experience against players from the absolute top of the world. His CV now includes matches against Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, three of the “Big Four” in tennis. He won at least one set against all of them – in the match against Murray, who was outside the top 100 at the time, he even managed to win.

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“I wasn’t that great in juniors, and I wasn’t that great in college either. (…) At first you don’t believe that you can compete against players like that or even win. And then you’re on the field and it’s just like playing against other players,” he revealed.

Koepfer is now getting the chance to play big matches like this more and more often – thanks to his rise in the world rankings. The 30-year-old, who is also known by the nickname “Pitbull” due to his beefy stature, started the year off strongly. Koepfer won a tournament on the second-class Challenger Tour on hard court before surprisingly reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open in doubles alongside fellow countryman Yannick Hanfmann.

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In March, he rewarded himself for his performances with 49th place in the rankings – the 30-year-old had never been so high before. “I feel fit and have played more consistently than in recent years. That’s why we get good results and the ranking comes automatically,” explained the Furtwangen native.


Injury leaves German tennis star in doubt

The fact that Koepfer did not move up the rankings earlier was partly due to bad luck with injuries. Just over a year ago, a long-term injury to his left arm threw him far back, and he even fell out of the top 250.

The injury caused him pain for a long time, especially when serving. “It was stupid because I tried everything and it still didn’t really go away. (…) But at the moment it’s good and I can train normally,” reported the current number 67 in the world.

There was no guarantee that the 1.80m tall man would reach his old level again. “It’s not easy to stay motivated mentally because it takes weeks to get back up to speed, because you really have to win tournaments. (…) So the doubts were already there and that’s why I was a little surprised at how quickly it happened.”

During this time, Koepfer won tournaments on the Challenger Tour, which he chose instead of the larger stage of the ATP Tour for his way back to the top. These small successes also gave him “confidence, which then helps in the bigger tournaments.”

Unusual path to the professional tour

Presenting himself away from the spotlight was nothing new for the 30-year-old: Koepfer made the jump to the professional tour through college in the USA – a path that other German players such as Benjamin Becker had already taken before which is still considered a rather unusual path to professional life for talents from Germany.

“Apart from players like Sascha (Zverev) or Carlos Alcaraz, where you really know that they are once-in-a-century talents or at least very talented and much better than the other juniors, I definitely think that college is a good way to go,” said Koepfer when asked about the concerns about young talent in German tennis.

There you can develop further, as a player, but “also as a person”. For the US sports lover, it was also the variant that was more enjoyable. With the usual, tough route through feature tournaments, “many people would lose interest and motivation”.

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It is not only a look at his career as a professional that shows that Koepfer is someone who thinks outside the box. For example, the man from the Black Forest is open to possible rule changes in tennis, such as those that were recently tested in the doubles competition at the Masters in Madrid.

Tennis is a boring sport, at least for the spectators,” Koepfer said with a laugh. “They all just sit there and clap. When you go to a football match or an ice hockey match… I don’t necessarily need to be insulted from the sidelines, but in Madrid the spectators are allowed to stand up and walk around, it’s exactly the same in college and nobody is bothered by it.”

The tennis professional knows what he’s talking about: The German number three regularly attends football and ice hockey games in his adopted American hometown of Tampa – at least when he’s not on the court.

Olympics in Paris as a big goal

On the tennis court, the Baden-Württemberg native has set himself a few goals for the current season, including “getting into the top 30 so that I can be seeded at the Grand Slams and also be at the forefront of the other larger tournaments.”

This does not seem impossible, because due to weaker performances on grass and another injury in the autumn, Koepfer has only a few points to defend.

A jump in the rankings would also help with regard to qualifying for the Olympic Games in the summer, which in Koepfer’s mind “maybe sometimes plays too big a role”, as he himself admits. The places are limited to a maximum of four and the competition among the German men is fierce – especially since Alexander Zverev is “way ahead anyway”.

For Koepfer, it would be his second Olympic appearance after Tokyo 2021 – an event that he describes in retrospect as a “huge experience”. The 30-year-old will soon have the opportunity to get in the mood for a possible appearance at the Games: the French Open (May 26 to June 9) is the next highlight of the season at the same venue.

Match against Nadal? “Maybe it’s better to be on the lawn”

The eyes of the tennis world will then be particularly focused on Roland Garros record winner Rafael Nadal: The clay court king is currently on a farewell tour and, if his body allows it, will play for the last time in his “Paris living room” – one of the last chances for Koepfer to complete the quartet of matches against the “Big Four”.

The Black Forest native would still prefer to avoid an early encounter with the Spaniard in Paris. “I’ve often thought about whether I really want to play against him or not. Maybe it’s better on grass, maybe not necessarily in Paris in the first round,” he admits with a smile.

The 22-time Grand Slam winner from Mallorca has always shone throughout his career with, among many other qualities, his calmness on the court – a quality that the German still lacks from time to time. “I will never be as calm as Rafa,” he said with a laugh, comparing himself to Nadal. “But things have gotten better.”

“On clay it’s a bit up and down. There’s just a lot of negativity that I direct at myself. In the end, on the hard court, I managed quite well to just stay calm throughout the match and fight and I hope that it will be the same again in the next few weeks when I gain a bit of self-confidence,” he said 30-year-old hopeful.

He currently seems to be succeeding in this in Lyon. He is currently in the quarter-finals there after defeating top 20 player Ugo Humbert in three sets in his home country. The ideal preparation for the French Open, which begins on Sunday.

And who knows what is possible there and in the future. If he stays free from injuries, reaching the round of 16 at the 2019 US Open may not be the greatest moment in Dominik Koepfer’s career for much longer.

2024-05-23 09:50:00
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