Koepfer carves own path as former champion looms

German's clay-court fortunes gather steam as he prepares to face No.15 seed Wawrinka

Dominik Koepfer, Roland Garros 2020, first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT
 - Ravi Ubha

Little steps for Dominik Koepfer are leading to his biggest results yet and it would get even better for the German if he topples Stan Wawrinka in the second round at Roland-Garros.

Koepfer embarked on the reshuffled, truncated European clay-court swing having lost two straight matches but his fortunes shifted following a career-changing week in Rome.

Once there, the left-hander duly took a set off world No.1 Novak Djokovic.

His ranking sits at a career-best No.61 and could climb even further after he defeated Frenchman Antoine Hoang in four sets on Sunday for his first win at Roland-Garros.

“It’s been amazing,” Koepfer told rolandgarros.com. “Coming into Rome, I was struggling a little bit with my confidence. Got a win in the first round and beat some good players and once you start rolling, you stop thinking and everything just goes on its own, and that’s what’s been happening the last few weeks.

“The tournament could have been over in the first round but then I moved on to the quarter-finals. Played a No.1 for the first time, which was a really special experience you don’t get every day. All these small steps help you to build confidence and experience, too.”

The 26-year-old who came through the US collegiate ranks qualified and won his first match at a Masters 1000 level, collected a first tour-level victory on clay, in which he saved a match point against Australian Alex de Minaur, and went on to land his maiden ATP quarter-final.

Dominik Koepfer, Roland Garros 2020, first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Koepfer is not bullish ahead of his encounter on Wednesday against Wawrinka, the 2015 champion on the Parisian terre battue. But with his newfound belief he is not overawed. 

“It’s exciting,” he said. “I’ve got no pressure, got nothing to lose. I’m healthy, I’ll be able to play freely and hopefully give him a hard time. And if I have the chance to win, just take it. I’m looking forward to it.”

Looking back, Koepfer’s path to becoming a professional tennis player was not a typical one. 

He was born in Furtwangen near the Swiss border, which he suspected had a population of about 8,000, and only started taking tennis seriously about the age of 16.

“I grew up in the Black Forest, literally in the middle of the forest,” he said with a smile. “Lots of snow, very cold there.”

No wonder Koepfer skied plenty. 

He regularly headed north with his mum and sister to watch the WTA tournament in Stuttgart and fondly recalled getting the autograph of one of Roland-Garros’s most iconic players, Justine Henin.

“I loved going there just watching the players, watching them practise,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I still have the autographs somewhere in a book at home.”

Koepfer contested a solitary ITF event as a junior and attended a modest university by US tennis standards, Tulane in New Orleans, Louisiana.

It was the lone school in the highest echelon of Division I that offered him a spot, he told ATPtour.com. When pronouncing New Orleans, Koepfer said it like the locals with not a hint of his German accent.

Soon after earning his finance degree, Koepfer began working with Billy Heiser and moved his training base to Tampa, Florida. Prior to his clay-court breakout, he was likely best known for reaching the fourth round at last year’s US Open.

“I remember our first day on court together and he was hitting with John Isner,” Heiser told rolandgarros.com, referring to the towering former world No.8 who also played college tennis in the US before turning pro. “It was the first time I had ever met him. I was very impressed, very good ball-striker, very good athlete, super live arm, just very, very raw.

“I could tell he had a love for the game but just hadn’t been around enough at a high enough level so needed that experience and a little fine-tuning and refinement but very, very talented athlete for sure.”

Heiser co-coaches Koepfer alongside ex pro Rhyne Williams while a mental coach, Ryan Herzog, is also part of the team. Herzog’s biography states that he formerly served in the US Air Force.

Koepfer intermittently practises with another of Heiser’s charges, last year’s Wimbledon quarter-finalist, Alison Riske, when they are in Tampa.

“He brings a lot of passion to everything he does,” Heiser said. “He’s super competitive. He’s got a great sense of humour. He’s a very well-rounded kid, super nice, very genuine. I can’t say anything bad about him.”

A huge football supporter, Koepfer’s favourite side, the mighty Bayern Munich, suffered a 4-1 upset loss to Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga on Sunday.

It is a result not to Koepfer's liking, but a reminder anything is possible as he prepares to take on a tennis giant on Wednesday.