From Skiing To Tennis' Top 100: Dominik Koepfer's Unlikely Journey
Dominik Koepfer departed Louis Armstrong Stadium last September with his head held high. The German enjoyed a dream run through qualifying and then to the fourth round of the US Open, where only red-hot Daniil Medvedev was able to stop him, and it took the Russian until a fourth-set tie-break to do so.
When the players shook hands at net, Medvedev had high praise for the 25-year-old lefty.
“Amazing. Amazing play. Amazing play.”
When Koepfer walked off the court that evening, the fans showed how much they appreciated the battle the World No. 118 put Medvedev through.
“I thought I did a good job. I was happy with the level and obviously walking out of the stadium, people cheering, it was a great experience” Koepfer told ATPTour.com. “I’ll never forget [it].”
Not bad for someone who wasn’t fully dedicated to tennis until he was 15. During his early teens, Koepfer had a decision to make: continue playing tennis once or twice per week, or focus on skiing or golf instead. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and #NextGenATP Italian sensation Jannik Sinner grew up skiing, too.
“Where I’m from [in Furtwangen, Germany], there’s a lot of snow, probably like five months per year. There’s always indoor tennis or skiing, so I was skiing a lot in the winter and then obviously playing tennis as well. When I turned 16, I made the final of the Under 16s German Championships. I [then] decided to play a little more tennis and put more effort into it. I went to college after that.”
That performance was only one of the reasons Koepfer chose tennis. He enjoyed the camaraderie that came with competing as part of a club team. Skiing left him alone on a mountain. That wasn’t all, though.
“I think tennis was definitely the least dangerous sport to play. Skiing is pretty dangerous, especially if you do it competitively,” Koepfer said. “There are a lot of injuries, a lot of knee injuries and with tennis I always enjoyed playing.”
Despite focussing on tennis, Koepfer did not garner much attention. His ITF junior ranking wasn’t high enough for colleges to recruit him. He earned one offer from a Division I university — which he would attend — in the United States: Tulane University. Koepfer got a couple of lower-level Division II offers, but nothing more.
“The choice was made pretty easily because I didn’t really have one,” Koepfer said.
Koepfer’s first trip to campus, located in Louisiana, was his first journey to the United States. He was 18.
“[The] first few months I didn’t think I was going to stay,” Koepfer said. “It was tough.
“My English wasn’t very good, different culture, different people, the team atmosphere, I was playing a lot of tennis. It was very tiring with school at the same time and managing your time, and then obviously having a social life in college as well. So, it was kind of a struggle at the beginning. Then I started to really enjoy it and I think it helped me get better as a player, especially, and as a person, as well.”
By his junior year, Koepfer started believing in himself. He bacame the first player in school history to earn the No. 1 college singles player. Koepfer won the 2015 ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship, ironically held on the grounds of the US Open, where he’d make his magical run less than four years later.
“I always had the dream of playing professionally, but never really had the level of playing professionally,” Koepfer said. “College definitely set me up for being able to go on the pro tour and compete on this level.”
Step by step, Koepfer navigated his way through the various professional levels. There were times he struggled to get through qualifying at Futures events, but last season he started to believe he could succeed on the ATP Challenger Tour. He lifted his first trophy at that level at Ilkley to earn a Wimbledon wild card.
It’s been a whirlwind ever since, with Koepfer ascending as high as World No. 83, and he is still improving. In the juniors, Koepfer was “very emotional” on court, and negative emotions would sometimes affect his game. The Florida resident has been working with a mental coach for more than a year, and he has reaped the rewards.
“I do a lot of daily routines: waking up, meditating, writing down things before matches, after matches. I write down a lot of things and then I obviously talk to him once or twice a week on the phone for an hour or two and then texting back and forth, just putting the daily effort into it,” Koepfer said. He believes his greatest strength is his fighting spirit, and it’s been about harnessing that.
“Sometimes when I freak out, when my emotions are getting in my way, it’s not the case. But I think I’m a very good fighter and I want to give my opponent the hardest time out there.”
Koepfer dreamed as a kid of becoming one of the 100 best players in the world. Having accomplished that, he's now setting his sights higher.
“Definitely Top 50,” Koepfer said. “Definitely competing at the highest level, competing at Grand Slams and playing the best players in the world.”