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Culture

Have Germans Lost Their Love for Tennis?

Twenty years ago, an unknown red-head from Germany became the youngest player ever to win Wimbledon. Boris Becker inspired an entire generation of German tennis players, so why does the future of the sport look so dim?

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"Boom Boom" Becker made tennis history in 1985

In addition to being the youngest player to ever raise the coveted Wimbledon trophy, Boris Becker was also the first German to win the title. That was in 1985. The significance of his victory was not lost on the then 17-year-old.

"This is going to change tennis in Germany," he said after the match. "I am the first Wimbledon winner and now they have an idol."

Steffi Graf nach ihrem ersten Wimbledon-Sieg

Steffi Graf after her first Wimbledon victory on July 2, 1988.

Becker wasn't the only idol, though. He was soon joined by Steffi Graf, who was still in her teens when, in 1988, she achieved the enviable "Golden Slam" -- winning all four Grand Slam titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same year.

Michael Stich carried on the wave of German domination in tennis, winning Wimbledon in 1991.

High expectations

"We had a lot of success in the past with Boris Becker, Michael Stich and Steffi Graf, and it was all in a period of five to 10 years. We had three Wimbledon winners all at the same time," said Toralf Bitzer, press officer at the German Tennis Federation (DTB). "Now, they're all retired and people expect that we should still have this level of success."

Instead, German tennis is widely acknowledged to be in a state of decline. It's partly a victim of its own success. As the DTB says, nothing can live up to that golden era when Germany's stars snapped up title after title and millions of little boys and girls dreamed of becoming the next Boris or Steffi.

The best German players on the circuit today undoubtedly have a lot to live up to, but overall, their performance has been disappointing. In May, Tommy Haas, Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schüttler all crashed out of the Hamburg Masters by the second round, prompting Becker to publicly bemoan Germany's lack of world class players.

Thomas Haas ATP Gerry Weber Open

Germany's Tommy Haas

At the current Wimbledon tournament, the German players had their worst showing in three years, with not a single German making it into the second week of competition.

"Something is going wrong"

"It's not satisfying, of course it isn't," said Bitzer. "There are 1.7 million players in the DTB, we're the third biggest sports association in Germany after soccer and gymnastics, so it has to be our aim to still be in the second week of Wimbledon."

According to Becker, "something is going wrong" when it comes to training the next generation of German tennis stars. "We have not found the secret to success here in Germany," he said in an interview with the newspaper Bild.

Nicolas Kiefer ist raus

Germany's Nicolas Kiefer failed to advance into the second week at Wimbledon after losing to Switzerland's Roger Federer

The DTB says that while really young players benefit from a strong training program in Germany, only a handful of players make a successful transition from junior to pro.

But no one, it seems -- not even Becker -- knows how to fix the problem.

"Becker was involved here in training players for the Davis Cup, but he also didn't have a solution," said Bitzer. "Some people say it's because no one in Germany is willing to work as hard as, say, the Russians, for example."

Defending Wimbledon champion and current darling of the tennis scene, 18-year-old Maria Sharapova of Russia, is a case in point. Her devotion to tennis transformed the Siberian girl who had nothing into a very wealthy superstar with a Porsche in the garage and multi-million dollar endorsements. Her rags-to-riches story is still capable of spawning single-minded devotion to tennis in countless Sharapova wannabes -- and their parents. That's less so in Germany, said Bitzer.

Maria Sharapova gewinnt im Finale gegen Serena Williams Wimbledon2004

Russia's Maria Sharapova reacts to her Wimbledon 2004 victory

"Girls need to start training earlier than boys," the DTB spokesman said. "The Russian women are already playing well at age 14, which means that at age 11 and 12, they did nothing else but play tennis. Well, I wouldn't do that to my daughter."

Coverage, sponsorship slipping

The lack of German tennis stars has meant that the public's love affair with the sport has also cooled. Tennis in Germany no longer gets the kind of television coverage and sponsorship it did during the Becker-Graf era. In a further sign of the sport's demise, the DTB last year sold its $1.3 million (1.8 euros) Berlin Women's Tennis Association (WTA) event to the Gulf state of Qatar for 6.7 million euros.

Boris Becker said recently that tennis is always capable of surprises. But while Germany waits to crown its next superstar, the chances of another golden age of tennis dawning in Germany are slim, says Bitzer.

"It won't happen in the next half century that we have 3 winners in 5 years -- that's not normal. We'll have another champion, but not three."

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