Yannick Hanfmann was wandering through the streets of Paris with his sister on Friday evening when a text from a friend popped up on his phone, which translated simply to: “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?…”
“I realised straight away that as the main draw for all the qualifiers was being made around that time, it could only mean one thing,” smiled the German. “And when I checked, sure enough…”
Yes, in the opening round, he had just been drawn to challenge Rafael Nadal, 11-time Roland-Garros champion, in his Court Philippe-Chatrier kingdom, sport’s equivalent of scaling Mount Everest in a pair of flip-flops.
Was he disheartened or buoyed by the news? “A bit of mixed feelings,” smiled the 27-year-old after a session at the Jean Bouin training complex on Saturday. “Of course, I wasn’t really happy with the draw overall but, on the other hand, it’s an unbelievable experience that’s coming towards me.”
And this likeable figure, who currently stands at 184 in the world rankings, quite fancies the idea of giving Rafa an unbelievable experience too - the prospect of being on the end of the biggest shock in Roland-Garros annals.
“I have been playing well. I’ve got a big game, I’ve won all six sets I’ve played (in qualifying), I’m definitely feeling comfortable here. So if my serve and return works, I can definitely do some damage.
“I won’t go into the match thinking I’ve no chance because that would be stupid. I’ll have a match plan ready.”
Then, he added with a broad smile: “I’ll know a lot about him - and maybe he doesn’t know as much about me!”
So in case Rafa does need a bit of help, here’s what he should know about the big-serving, 6ft 4in German who will be aiming to become only the third man to defeat him in his 89th Roland-Garros match.
Hanfmann, a late starter in the professional ranks at 23 after a successful college career at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he earned a degree in international relations, has made impressive strides despite what might be considered the handicap of a significant hearing impairment.
“I can hear roughly only 60% of what you should normally be able to hear in each ear,” he explains. “Sometimes, it’s an advantage on court - maybe on Chatrier, it’ll be an advantage because I don’t hear that much that’s going on - but, overall, I don’t think in tennis it’s that much of an disadvantage because I’m just able to blend out a lot of the noise.
“I’ll still get all the atmosphere on Chatrier on Monday; there’s this thing about my hearing that when it gets loud, I’ll hear as good as the next guy, but female voices I have much more trouble hearing.
“I think the distance between my box and the court is a bit too far for me to hear anything, so they’d have to yell! But that’s okay - I don’t need coaching,” he smiled.
Here’s a guy with interests that stretch far beyond tennis, though. An eco-friendly, political scientist who wants to be involved in some way in saving endangered species, he’s a bit of a renaissance man.
Cares about people - and cheetahs!
“I can only say more than the best words about him. He’s a pretty nice, reflective guy, always friendly, always thinking about different matters, who cares a lot about people, which is unusual in our business,” enthuses one of his coaches Lukas Wolff.
“I feel tennis is amazing, I love it, but tennis isn’t everything, there’s more in this world,” shrugs Hanfmann. “I’ll try to be the best I can be as player into my mid-30s or whatever, but I know there’s something out there for me when I finish.
“I feel the world is changing so quickly, so fast - who knows what jobs, what technological advancements there’ll be, what the political situation will be? - I think there’s exciting, if difficult times ahead.
“In South Africa, I went to a cheetah outreach centre and loved these animals to death. It’s hard to see what we’re doing to our planet with beautiful animals like the cheetah being classified as endangered only two years ago, so I’d definitely like to get involved in things like that which make me happy and fulfilled.”
For the moment, though, he says, nothing would fulfil him more than giving the greatest clay-courter of them all a proper scare. “Yes, the ultimate test in tennis - this and beating Roger (Federer) on Centre Court at Wimbledon,” he mused.
“It is a privilege but I can’t afford to make the match too big in my mind. If I do, I won’t be able to play really well. It won’t be easy - but I’ll try to keep it laid-back.”