Eat your heart out USTA. The leagues and the associations of the United States Tennis Association have nothing on the 197 racquet clubs located either in, or a quick bicycle ride from, the Mitte (Middle) district of Berlin. Even New York, which has the storied New York Athletic Club and West Side Club (otherwise known as Forest Hills), where Billie Jean and Johnny Mac — and all those others famous-nicknamed players flattened balls — can’t compare.
While Berlin itself hasn’t produced a champion the likes of Boris Becker or Steffi Graf in nearly twenty-five years, the city does know how to court the fifteen percent of Berliners who play the local circuit. The legacies will tell you that TC 1899 e.V. Blau-Weiß (the Blue-White Club) or the Lawn Turnier Tennis Club Rot-Weiß Berlin (Red-White Club) have the best clubhouses (and biergartens), coaches and clay in Germany. But the transplants who live in or frequent the former communist side of the city — neighborhoods such as Kreuzberg and Schöneberg, past Checkpoint Charlie and the East Side Gallery (aka the remains of the Berlin Wall) — prefer the no-fuss, hole-in-the-alley neighborhood joints with backyard clay courts, semi-private changing rooms and graffiti murals. There, middle-class players often turn up riding their Donkey Republic app bikes, toting a one-racquet Adidas backpack and wearing their favorite football jersey to play a pick-up set or two. Membership dues often include a grounds-keeping assignment.
Since the Wall went down, Berlin has become the second largest city in the European Union, expected to hit four million people by 2025–54 percent of them under 45 years of age. Developers have swooped in on any available space, including clay courts, to build more apartment buildings and townhouses for the burgeoning bourgeoisie. One such club, the TC Berlin Mitte Albert Gutzmann e.V., has been fighting for its life since a local school laid claim to its valuable real estate. To survive, the storied TC Berlin Mitte will have to pull a serious break-point: relocate its three outdoor tennis courts ninety degrees to the East. “Mitte is the district with the largest sports area deficit,” says board member Fred Bruss, adding that the association has 190 members from 27 nations, as well as students from Humboldt University, playing on its courts. “Already in 2016, the club collected thousands of signatures against being forced to close.”
During the Open Era, the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) had one star player, Thomas Emmrich, who, according to Martina Navratilova in a 1989 article for the New York Times, “beat all the junior players in Czechoslovakia. He beat people who beat Bjorn Borg at that age. But he never had a chance to play on the outside. They were not allowed, period.” Emmrich took his case to play abroad straight to the Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi and was, unsurprisingly, denied. He said once that he thought about defecting, but worried about reprisals against his parents, who were party members. Emmrich, therefore, bided his time for the Seoul Olympics by racking up national championships at clubs such as Tennis Association SV Berliner Brauereien, currently located next door to a temporary refugee camp in Prenzlauer Berg, as well as Berlin’s only grass courts at the SG Am Hain in Volkspark Friedrichshain. The intrepid tennis pro also smuggled in racquets, tennis shoes and other Western goods from Davis Cup events to pay for his career.
Navratilova predicted a “wave of East German players” when the wall turned to a pile of rubble, and her then-boyfriend, Emmrich did eventually gain a ranking of 482 — the only DDR ranking on record — but that East German surge never undulated through the tennis world. After German reunification, Emmrich’s daughter, Manuela, and son, Martin, took up the torch, leading the Armstrong Atlantic State college team to the 2005 U.S. Division II National Championship and achieving a top thirty five double ranking, respectively.
In the mid-1980s, in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), however, a seven-year old teen standout named Boris Becker began training at the TC 1899 Blau-Weiß. Fourteen years Emmrich’s junior, Becker turned pro in 1984 and in 1989, became the face of reunification. Well, he and Steffi Graf. But Graf had a better time cheering on would-be Wall smashers at LTTC Rot-Weiß, just down the street. “I would love to have done it, just to be a part of the moment,” Graf told the New York Times in 1989. On the other hand, Becker took the responsibility as heavily as the big chunks of Wall carried as souvenirs from district to district. “When you are thrown onto the stage at 17 in such an enormous way, it becomes living on the edge because every step you take, every word you speak, every action you do becomes headline news. And it became, for me, life or death,” Becker said the same year.
Pointedly, Becker didn’t become as monumental to the movement as he possibly thought. His trophies still stand in the foyer of TC 1899 Blau-Weiß. Graf, on the other hand, has the “Steffi-Graf Stadion” to visit whenever she leaves Las Vegas for home.