From a club player to an amazing college player and then to Wimbledon

TennisGate Blogs Leave a Comment

The german Tennis Magazine published on  2019, July 01 an exclusive interview, here is the translation of the article.

From a club player to a college player and then to Wimbledon. Dominik Koepfer’s journey is unique and shows that there is not one path, the Royal Path, to the top. In addition it demonstrates that solid a foundation can lead to the big leagues. The biggest tennismagazine in Germany  spoke to Oliver Heuft, who together with Juergen Mueller was responsible for player development training at BW Villingen in Germany for 20 years and trained Dominik Koepfer for a long time.

Tennis Magazine

Mr. Heuft, in his youth at BW Villingen, Dominik was a very versatile athlete who played exclusively club team matches and regional tournaments. When did you realize that a professional career would make sense for Dominik Koepfer?

Oliver Heuft

I'd like to add something: At 16, Dominik was runner-up in the German Nationals, with practically no TE and ITF tournaments experience and his ranking was not great. After graduating from high school, the big change occurred in college. After four years at Tulane University (New Orleans), he successfully completed his studies, was two-time All-American 2015 ITA Indoor Collegiate Champion and number one in the collegiate ranking. It was only after college that he joined the professional tour.

Tennis Magazine

An unusual career for a tennis professional.

Oliver Heuft

Yes. To get back to the question. At the end of his college days and the imminent completion of his studies, I thought it would make sense to start with professional tennis. His father Thomas and Dominik asked Juergen Mueller and me to talk about it with him. We adviced him to try the pro tour for a minimum of two years and then decide further. By the way it was the first time in our coaching career that we adviced someone to do that.

The TV station Sky Germany reported intensively about Dominik's success, called it the Cinderella Story and invited Dominik and his youth coaches to have an interview in the studio.

Tennis Magazine

Why the first time? Haven't you had any other players who could do it?

Oliver Heuft

Yes. But we Black Forest people are not very quick to recommend this. We do not agree with the "all or nothing" principle, i.e. to put everything in one basket early on. My view of the job of a development coach is to provide children and young players with choices towards the end of their junior years by providing them with a solid technical and athletic foundation. A high school diploma must always be clearly in focus, parallel to their sports training. Anything else would be irresponsible. Reasonable parents don't want it any different. This is exactly how Dominik Koepfer was trained.

In my opinion, a decision to become a professional player can only be made in a sustainable way if this decision is the natural result of certain development processes and considers information from all the different coaches involved. Our friend and colleague Edgar Giffenig once posted a blog about this topic. The title was: "You do not choose to be a professional player, it chooses you! Jürgen Mueller and myself couldn’t agree more with this statement.

Tennis Magazine

What do you do with players who dream of becoming professionals? You do not recommend this in general?

Oliver Heuft

Very young players don't express it quite like that. They want to become like their role models, which has nothing to do with their career aspirations. The dream of becoming a great tennis player is perfectly okay. And the goal of playing in the first teams of the club is also quite high. But making a living playing tennis? Honestly, the world's number 150 in golf earns about a 1,000 000. In Tennis? I don't think they' can cover their expenses. But this discussion is now in vogue as a result of the latests regulations by the ITF. By the way, I never have a problem with young players expressing their goals unless it is their parent’s goals which they are expressing.

There is a clear connection between explosive bounce and serve speed! If you can jump up 1.14 m like Dominik here, you have advantages when serving - good technique of course. In performance training, technique and condition are often combined (as here in the video) with complex training.

Of course you can find these videos in the Tennis2Brain-Project! Register now for free!

Tennis Magazine

You were responsible in Villingen for the early years of Dominik's training, up to the age of 14. What distinguished him? Was it possible to see at an early age what might happen?

Oliver Heuft

Something like "I always believed in his special talent", "I knew from the first stroke what he was made of", "I knew he would be great" - nonsense.

Honestly? Dominik was trained by me as well as by many other trainers at the club according to solid DTB (German Tennis Association) training guidelines. I was responsible for the first stage from age 7 to 14, then Juergen Mueller took over. In my opinion, young german players should first grow up in a functioning club system. They need a variety of training stimuli, different training partners, team competitions, other sports and a solid athletic-motor foundation. They should also be integrated into the adult teams at an early age.

The closer the second men's team is to the first in terms of level, the easier the transition. Dominik’s first assignment was with 16 in the second men's team, which played in Villingen at that time in the third division of the German league (Oberliga), directly one division under the first team at the club (Badenliga). That was ideal for him. One year later, at 17, nothing stood in the way of his deployment into the Badenliga.

Tennis Magazine

So, emphasize team competition?

Oliver Heuft

Absolutely! Nothing is better suited for player development than team matches and a good club system. Dominik, for example, loved that. He's a team player - that's exactly how he grew up. We coaches also play for the club, and we set an example. We also recommend that parents form alliances with other parents early on and travel to tournaments together. This relieves pressure and also helps the financial situation some.

Tennis Magazine

Does that work?

Oliver Heuft

That depends on how much parents let it happen. This constant individual competition, the fight man against man, seduces parents to slide into a different scheme themselves and to see all other players only as competitors. When I started as a coach in Villingen in 1993, I went on a four-week tournament trip with 25 children for three years in a row. We traveled to 5 big junior events. Five parents with big vehicles were allowed to travelled with us, with one condition: .None of the fathers or mothers were allowed to care for their own child.

This experience was worth its weight in gold, for the parents, the children and for me. Every evening at 10 pm we got together and the parents told us about their experiences with other children until midnight. This team experience shaped me and certainly also influenced the way I managed parents and players from then on. The demands on tennis parents is enormous. I have always involved them in the processes.

Tennis Magazine

Did Dominik's parents let that happen?

Oliver Heuft

Dominik's parents were certainly the coach's dream: reserved and supportive. They never interfered and always let us do our job. Perhaps this was due to the trust they had on us. After all, the whole family, parents, sister and aunt played in the Villingens TennisClub. They knew what we were doing. Parents can definitely learn something from the "Koepfer" story.

Tennis Magazine

What would that be?

Oliver Heuft

To stay calm. At 18, that is when it really starts. Parents shouldn’t panic when things don't go smoothly in the younger years. It's not about accumulating results. Starting at18, there are no more age groups. When the players grow up and „real“ tennis starts, that is when you have to double the training volume, sometimes even triple it. This is not possible if children are already train 2-3 hours a day. In the younger years. Players need to learn to train "intensively", not necessarily a lot - quality before quantity! A top older player needs both: high volumes and a high intensity. You can't do that until the players are mature. Take a look at the increased average age of the tour. That says it all.

Tennis Magazine

That sounds good, but it's not always easy, is it?

Oliver Heuft

Sure, the subject of sponsorship always hangs like a sword of Damocles over the parents. But as you can see in Dominik's case, who really didn't get too much financial support from the association, it's important to find a good club. Although BW Villingen is special, it is not an isolated case. I know a lot of clubs and coaches that work the same way we do. In Dominik's case, many factors simply favored each other at the right time. But first and foremost is his incredible motivation and commitment. And let us not forget the most decisive of all factors: luck and health.
Image
"Do not leave anything to chance", Dominik in the TennisGate Media Studio in Freiburg (Black Forest, Germany), watching Pro Analysis with Oliver Heuft.

Tennis Magazine

Let us go back to the later part of his path, the time after the club. Did he find it easy to go to the U.S.?

Oliver Heuft

I remember those days shortly before his departure to the USA, when I pressed Tim Gallwey's "Inner Game of Tennis" into his hand, and my colleague Juergen Mueller stopped training because "Donne", as we call him, lost his composure once again. His demands on himself were so high that it was impossible for him to live up to them. His frustration tolerance was below zero. Juergen spent the rest of the training session with him on the bench. It was clear to all of us that either Donne would be back in Germany in 14 days or he would fight through it and win.

Tennis Magazine

I guess, he fought through it.

Oliver Heuft

Oh, yeah, he did.

Tennis Magazine

In your opinion, how important was college tennis in his current success?

Oliver Heuft

Immensly important. Head coach Marc Booras at Tulane definitely turned him into an athlete.

Tennis Magazine

How was the decision made to go to Tulane?

Oliver Heuft

We made contact with our friend and colleague Edgar Giffenig in the USA, who was himself a college coach. One of the players he trained earlier on was Marc Booras, now head coach at Tulane. When Dominik decided to apply for colleges in 2013/ 2014, he was ranked 525th in the German men's ranking. That is not enough to choose a top college. Especially not an address like Tulane.

Tennis Magazine

It's a difficult subject, isn't it? Financial Support and ranking ...

Oliver Heuft

That also affected Dominik, not only when choosing a college. Juergen Mueller, the regional federation coach had a hard time convincing the region to support him because his ranking was not good. The coaches often have their hands tied. And then he reaches the final of the German Nationals under16 with two training sessions per week. Nobody could believe it.

Tennis Magazine

What does this mean for support of the federation in general?

Oliver Heuft

It is quite clear to me that such a huge task as the support of the mass of young tournament players in Germany can only be controlled with clear regulations. And the simplest solution is of course to use the ranking system. The problem is that by doing so, young tennis players are forced into a never ending spiral, having to play many tournaments to improve their ranking.

The rankings are used to determine support. So the players often act against the age recommendations from sports science and when they turn 18 they have so much training and competition on their backs that they can no longer greatly increase their training and competition volume. This is my perception, and certainly not only related to this sport.

Tennis Magazine

What would be better?

Oliver Heuft

A colleague of mine once came up with the idea of a player performance test, which would test certain athletic, motor and tennis-specific factors. Neutral and independent, similar to the well-known FMS (Functional Movement Screen). But in the conversion complex and presumably priceless. But certainly fairer.

What does a ranked position say? The actual playing level? That's the first thing I taught the young players, including Dominik: Don't look at the ranking position, judge your opponent by what he's got right now. If he cannot hit an overhead in the warm up, or even better, doesn't want one at all (often already experienced), then lure him to the net and lob over him. If he has a hard time hitting his Western grip forehand when you slice then play the slice as often as possible. Players who get scared by their opponent's ranking position sometimes don't even notice that their opponent is left-handed. I have experienced this several times.

Image
Dominik at the age 11 and 15 in Villingen.

Tennis Magazine

Your conclusion from this discussion?

Oliver Heuft

Ranking positions in youth tennis indicate playing strength and performance. However, this does not always correlate.

Tennis Magazine

To get back to the commitment with Tulane. Why did Tulane take him, if his ranking was not great?

Oliver Heuft

First and foremost the personal assessment of Marc Booras (head coach of Tulane), the first impression Dominik made when Mark watched him train and also the conversations with his family. Surely it wasn't to Dominik's disadvantage that Edgar and I told Marc that he had a lot of room to improve, had a great affinity for athletics and fitness and is a great team player. The bottom line, however, was that Tulane took quite a risk at the time.

Tennis Magazine

But that was really worth it.

Oliver Heuft

I'm not a specialist in college tennis but I'd say the pick of the decade? From number 6 on the team to number 1 to two-time All-America choice and 2015 ITA Indoor Collegiate Champion. Dominik has more than returned this to Tulane with his dedication and performance. He can train so incredibly hard and Marc Booras definitely chose the right training goals. He was responsible turning a good player into a top athlete and - a performer!

Tennis Magazine

But the Club BW Villingen suffered after the departure, didn't it?

Oliver Heuft

One thing's for sure, they're never just "your" players. If you think so as a coach or a club, then at some point this leads to unhealthy social pressure. The player feels obligated. It's not a good foundation. For Juergen Mueller and me, the principle was always the same: Players who were important to us should always be able to come back again.

Tennis Magazine

The player's luck as maxim?

Oliver Heuft

Sometimes you have to let go of players you want to see happy. There comes a day when you can't give them what they need. I know that many coaches have the dream of coaching a player from the first stroke to the professional circuit and the first Grand Slam tournament. But in my eyes this is an illusion and works almost only with parents who are also coaches, and even then it is extremely rarely.

Tennis Magazine

Wasn't professional tennis once your dream or that of your colleagues in Villingen?

Oliver Heuft

To build this system, to keep it alive, costs so much time, energy and above all one thing: constant presence. When you're a club or a base trainer coaching your best player on the tour, you're abandoning your system and risking a lot. What if the player with you as coach is not successful and you are needed at home, by other players who also need your expertise? Not to mention family, children or financial pressure. Every player with a certain emotional intelligence also feels this pressure. He'll not only play for himself, but for you as well. You don't have to have to be a psychologist to understand that under these conditions things will not turn out well.

Tennis Magazine

Can’t you do both, have a base and travel?

Oliver Heuft

I admire coaches who over the years have managed to keep their systems running at home - whether club or academy - and still travel a lot. But I'm sure there's always something left behind. Bottom line: you can be a player development coach or a tour coach.

Tennis Magazine

Is there such a thing as fidelity to their home base among professionals?

Oliver Heuft

I'm sure many of them are faithful to their home base. I'm sure it depends on how you grew up. The most important thing is that players always have a training base. Even though a player’s situation or career path can change, there must be a home that is always there. Especially when things aren't going optimally. Let's call it "primeval soup". In Dominik's case, his primeval soup is certainly BW Villingen and the TennisGate Tennis and Ball School.

Tennis Magazine

Do the players still have contact with him?

Oliver Heuft

You have to see what's going on in the Villingen WhatsApp groups when he plays. A professional's life can get pretty lonely. Maybe not right now, with all the hustle and bustle around him after making it into Wimbledon’s main draw and with all of the players and coaches from his Saddlebrook team there.

He plays many tournaments alone and has to take care of everything himself: Arrival, hotel, training grounds, training program, hitting partner. I guess it's good for him to always be in touch with the base. And the base is not only the "primeval soup" Villingen, but also the players of Tulane, his Green Wave coach Marc Booras and also his current Saddlebrook team.

Image
Friends will be friends! Dominik with former players of his home club 2019 in Villingen.

Tennis Magazine

What do you think has contributed to his recent successes?

Oliver Heuft

He's ready to work right now where it really hurts. Dominik has a hot temper and tends to put himself down, dealing with himself very sarcastically. Ever since he was a kid. My opinion is that one has one's character and cannot deny it under any circumstances - and must not deny it. On the contrary, you have to learn how to handle it properly. One should not bend oneself, must be honest to oneself and direct one's energy correctly. It's going to take professionals who'll take care of it.

What makes me proud - for him, not for me - is the fact that he works with experts on his mental attitude and whoever followed the tournament in Ilkley (grass court challenger before Wimbledon, where the winner gets a wildcard for Wimbledon; ed.) knows what I mean. Staying calm, even in tight situations and even with match point against oneself. And this with a Wimbledon Wild Card at stake - oh man!

Tennis Magazine

Is it normal at this level to work with sports psychologists?

Oliver Heuft

For professional athletes? Sure some do, but certainly not all. Most people don't tell you either. To a certain extent, socially competent and emotionally skilled tennis coaches can also do valuable work. But when it comes to the cream of the crop, the top 100, and you as a player know exactly that in tight situations it's about optimizing your performance? It is recklessness not to confide in experts. Dominik has recognized this and acted accordingly.

You never know what will come and how everything will end, but there is one thing I always believe as a coach: You have to try everything to reach your potential. When you look back on your career as a player and realize that you weren't willing to try everything, that is something you will always regret.

Image
Dominik at the Easter Camp of the TennisGate Tennis and Ball School, Albarella/Italy in 2019.

Tennis Magazine

But that still doesn't guarantee success.

Oliver Heuft

You can only hope for success if you use all your internal potential and do everything possible to achieve it. You can't expect it anyway. But success is still the driving force. There are so many players who do everything and still don't get the result they want. But then you can definitely be at peace with yourself.

Tennis Magazine

What else can Dominik achieve?

Top players are able to train intensively but at the same time with high quality. This sequence at practice in Villingen shows Dominik focussing on tennis specific endurance training in connection with heavy load over "knee jumps".

Of course you can find these videos in the Tennis2Brain-Project! Register now for free!

Oliver Heuft

After this tournament in Ilkley, in which he defeated several top people in a row and he tackled his mental attitude correctly and allowed changes, I am convinced that he can be among the top 100 in the world in the near future. After that? Much is possible. For Wimbledon I wish him one or two winable rounds and then perhaps the ultimate experience (laughs): To play in "Boris Becker's living room", the Centre Court!

Tennis Magazine

Will you be there?

Oliver Heuft

Juergen Mueller and I will be there with friends for two days starting Thursday. None of us has been there except for Juergen, who already coached Joschi Thron (manager of Angie Kerber) as a junior player there. We all still come from the Borg/McEnroe generation and in the late 70s we were still flattening our noses watching small televisions. To see Dominik playing there right now would be an unbelievable experience and - we have already talked about dreams - certainly the dream of every youth coach. But we're not putting pressure on him! (laughs).

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
Notify of