German Tennis Serve Already!

A corporate sponsorship by Porsche and the rise of world-ranked players such as Angelique Kerber are reenergizing the German Fed Cup team, but making women’s tennis as popular and relevant as it was when Steffi Graf ruled the courts remains a long-term goal.
Angelique Kerber, all in for German women's tennis.

Barbara Rittner, 41, has been captain of the German Fed Cup team since 2005. In the 1990s, she was among Germany’s best tennis players and at the height of her career in 1993 was ranked number 24 in the world. Ms. Rittner, who now calls Cologne her home, has earned close to $2 million during her career.

Ms. Rittner’s most successful player at present is Angelique Kerber, 27, who is ranked number ten in the world. A native of Bremen, who also holds Polish citizenship, reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2012. So far, Ms. Kerber has earned more than $7 million in prize money.

It’s the first round of the Fed Cup in Stuttgart, the top international team competition in women’s tennis. The team led by Barbara Rittner is continuing its strong play and has just won against Australia. Last year, 2014, was a good year for Mr. Rittner and her team. For the first time in more than 20 years, Germany’s women of tennis had reached the finals again.


Handelsblatt: Ms. Rittner, the expectations placed on your team this season are high.

Barbara Rittner: That’s normal after our ladies played so successfully last year. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad that three players were eliminated in the first round of the Australian Open in January, which lowered the expectations somewhat. Many fans already are talking about the finals.

Isn’t that the goal?

Ms. Rittner: Naturally, that’s what we have set in our minds, but it is a damn long way there. In 2014, they were celebrating us for having made it to the Fed Cup semi-finals. After the finals, that is now expected. That’s how quickly the outlooks change.

When you took the federal team coaching job more than 10 years ago, there were no really well-known German players. Today, a couple of names immediately come to mind. How did you do that?

Ms. Rittner: I quickly noticed that the players back then didn’t have the qualities to be among the front runners and made a generational cut. Some fantastic girls moved up such as Angelique Kerber, Andrea Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki, Julia Görges and Anna-Lena Grönefeld. I have shown them over the years that I believe in them. And they worked hard.

Who and what was necessary to completely rebuild this team?

Ms. Rittner: When I began, I lacked a clear direction, a structure. So I looked at all the age groups, to see how much talent there was. I also considered how they might benefit from each other.


Ms. Rittner: I put them together in training courses at an early stage and am still doing it that way today. When they play against each other, the players mutually pull each other up. That worked terrifically, particularly with this generation.

What do you think they are capable of?

Ms. Rittner: I think they still have their best tennis ahead of them...that none of them have reached their limit. A grand slam victory is absolutely possible.

Ms. Kerber, do you also believe a grand slam title is possible?

Ms. Kerber: Let’s wait and see. I am giving my all to achieve my goals. And we’ll see after my career how things turned out.

But the grand slam title must certainly be one of those goals...

Ms. Kerber: Obviously. But the most important thing is to later be able to say I gave my all. I couldn’t have done anything better.



You, as a player, earn millions. The federation, in contrast, is in tough financial straits. How does that make sense?

Ms. Rittner: Those are completely separate things. The players are self-employed and have to fend for themselves. At the same time, we shouldn't forget that the German Tennis Federation supported them when they were young. On the other hand, the federation is presently going through a difficult period. In contrast to the boom years, they are down some 600,000 members.

How does being Kerber, the independent businesswoman, work?

Ms. Kerber: Like everyone else, I also have a team consisting of a coach, a physiotherapist, a fitness trainer and a manager. I pay for everything myself including flights and accommodations for everyone who comes along. They are not negligible costs.

But you certainly get something in exchange. You have already won several million in prize money.

Ms. Kerber: The public sees only the prize money, but not what you pay to get it. And especially when you are just getting started, you have a lot more costs than income. That also is a risk.

But you are certainly, let’s say, doing a good job of making ends meet...

Ms. Kerber: Yes, if you consistently play well, you bring in your prize money. But, if you are eliminated in the first round ten times in a row, you would no longer be in the black.

Video: Highlights of the match between Angelique Kerber (GER) and Jarmila Gajdosova (AUS), during Germany's Fed Cup.

Porsche is financially supporting the Fed Cup team. How did this partnership come about?

Ms. Rittner: In the beginning, I tried to generate funds like a team manager. Four years ago, we happened by chance to be sitting together with the Porsche executive board during the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. Julia Görges had won and made people aware of women’s tennis. Then, Sigmar Gabriel helped me. He successfully suggested to the executive board that they support us.

The Sigmar Gabriel? The minister for economic affairs and energy and vice chancellor of Germany?

Ms. Rittner: Yes. I had just ended my own career at the end of 2004 and between Christmas and New Year’s flew to Klaus Hofsäss in Marbella (in Spain) to clear my head. Klaus was the Fed Cup team manager in Steffi Graf’s day. He owns a beautiful complex. Sigmar Gabriel also was there. He had just stopped serving as state premier of Lower Saxony. We talked a lot, thought about the future. It was an uncertain time for both of us.

Are you the reason he became a tennis fan?

Ms. Rittner: Yes. I told him I wanted to build up at the German Tennis Federation. The person he got to know first was Andrea Petkovic, who at the age of 19 already was very interested in politics. When he meets the girls today, he gives them a hug and says they can use him as their mascot.

Have you ever played against him?

Ms. Rittner: (laughs) I wouldn’t say against him. More like with him. He likes to play tennis, has a feeling for the ball, but he could perhaps be a bit more agile.

Did you gain more contacts in politics and business through him?

Ms. Rittner: Naturally. Sometimes, he quite deliberately took me along to events and introduced me to other people.

Like the time with Porsche. How is the sport of tennis benefiting from the partnership?

Ms. Rittner: When Porsche, a premium brand, supports the German Fed Cup team as a premium team, that’s a great compliment for us. And financially that means we can provide more individual support to the players, optimize basic conditions and work more professionally.

What influence does Porsche have on how and where the money is spent?

Ms. Rittner: Of course the money is earmarked. Part always goes to young talent. Porsche also gets a report from us each month showing what each player on the team has achieved. There is a sort of control committee at Porsche that keeps track of what happens to the money.

This committee must be especially interested in what you are doing, Ms. Kerber. You are a new national brand ambassador for the carmaker. What does that entail?

Ms. Kerber: I wear the name on my T-shirt. Added to that are photo shoots and autograph dates. And I drive a Porsche.

Ms. Rittner: ...the whole Porsche Team in Germany drives one.

Why should a potential sponsor invest in tennis, especially now?

Ms. Rittner: The players are very successful. And attractive. I’m surprised no beauty company has shown an interest yet. But others are now taking care of looking for sponsors. I am the coach, not a manager.

A position yet to be created...

Ms. Rittner: Yes, I would very much like to have a team manager.


</a> Do you drive a Porsche as well? Angelique Kerber and Barbar Rittner.


The German Football Association DFB has shown how the German national coach and the team manager can work together. Is that a possible role model?

Ms. Rittner: You can make comparisons with anything, not just with soccer. It is so professional. There is so much money available. If the DFB wants to build an intensive training center for €100 million, it just goes ahead and does it.

All the same, are there things you can learn by looking at soccer?

Ms. Rittner: Of course you can, but it has to be doable. At the moment, the DTB simply doesn’t have the funds for a team manager.

Is the lack of money also a reason why there are no longer very many high-class tennis tournaments in Germany?

Ms. Rittner: Staging a tournament costs a lot of money, yes. If there is €1 million in prize money, then the organization and staging will cost three times that amount. It is certainly the goal of the federation to again stage a high-class tournament in the future, something like the International German Open in Berlin, just like in the times of Steffi Graf.

But in Steffi Graf’s day, it was a given games would be shown live on television.

Ms. Rittner: Being on television plays a huge role. We did our part in 2014, when the Fed Cup finals were shown on the German TV station, Sat 1. But sadly, viewer ratings were not such to make the station shout hurray. If tennis is only rarely shown, the audience isn’t even aware of it.

Ms. Kerber: It would be nice if tennis again were more present again in Germany. We are doing everything we can on the court to make the sport of tennis more respected and more closely followed in this country.


Diana Fröhlich writes for Handelsblatt's 'Reports and Names' section. Claudia Panster is currently a reporter for Handelsblatt in Düsseldorf. To contact the authors: [email protected]; [email protected].