On The Rise... Tobias Kamke
by Paul Macpherson
Tobias Kamke relaxes at the Brisbane International last week.
After rising 187 places in the South African Airways ATP Rankings last season, Tobias Kamke is determined to become Germany’s highest-ranked player.
High school chemistry and physics classes have tested the patience and attention spans of teenagers for years. For Germany’s Tobias Kamke, the 2010 ATP World Tour Newcomer Of the Year, the classes were particularly torturous. In his latter years at school, turning pro was never far from his mind.
In 2004, with two more years of study ahead of him, Kamke took the chance while on holiday to play his first Futures event in Leun, Germany. After an unexpected run to the final in his first professional event, Kamke, then 18, was hooked and wanted out of school. No science experiment could hold a flame to the lure of the pro game. "I had no idea about chemistry, and physics was awful as well," Kamke told DEUCE at the Brisbane International in the first week of the 2011 ATP World Tour season. "It was always my dream to turn pro. When I made the final I was so motivated to start. I wanted to quit school and start right away, but I had two more years of school." [In Germany, formal schooling includes Year 13.]
Later, as he became more adamant that he would quit school, Kamke remembers heated arguments about his future with his father. "I rang him from a Futures event and said, 'Call the school and tell them I won't be there on the first day because I want to turn pro.' When I came back I had three or four discussions for one or two hours with my father about it and we were screaming a little bit."
"You have to stay in school. It’s much better for your future. What happens if you get injured after one year? Then you can’t study because you didn’t finish the 13 years of school," said his father, Lutz.
"I'm not getting injured. I will make it now," Kamke insisted.
With his mother, Margit, an uncle and even idol Michael Stich all imploring him to finish school, Kamke relented. "Michael said to me, 'If you're good enough to make it, you will make it in two years.' I thought if so many people were against it I should wait. The last two years were pretty tough, but I’m glad now that I listened and finished school."
Kamke, 24, is finally making up for his delayed start to the pro ranks. In 2010 he slashed his South African Airways ATP Ranking from 254 to 67, an achievement which promoted his peers to vote him the 2010 ATP World Tour Newcomer of the Year. Before last year his progress to the ATP World Tour had been anything but expeditious; during his career he's played 265 matches at Futures and Challenger level. But his days at the Challenger level look like they are over. Despite standing just 5' 11" Kamke has a growing reputation as one of the best athletes on tour, with exceptional foot speed and balance and penetrating ground strokes off both wings. In the off season he’s worked hard to improve his net game.
In 2010, after a series of deep runs at Challenger level, he qualified at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time at Roland Garros, where he reached the second round. The week after, he reached the Furth Challenger final and then qualified at Wimbledon en route to the third round, where he was competitive against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Kamke’s travelling coach, Ralph Grambow, cites the German’s first-round recovery from two-sets down against tough Spaniard Guillermo Garcia Lopez (an Eastbourne finalist who later in the year would save 24 of 26 break points to beat Rafael Nadal in the Bangkok semi-finals) as a turning point in his career.
“In the first round of Wimbledon, Tobi was two sets and 3-5 down. He came back and won the match and at that moment he realised that he was ready for the bigger tour,” said Grambow, who shares coaching duties with the non-traveling Maik Schuerbesmann . “We were getting a return on the hard work. But right after the match he couldn’t believe what he had just done. He said: ‘Did that really happen? I was down and nearly out. How good is that!’ On the ATP website there was a picture of the moment he won, when he put his arms up in the air. He has it on his laptop as the background picture.”
Speaking to DEUCE this week in Sydney, Garcia Lopez recalled his Wimbledon loss and predicted good things for Kamke. “He’s got great legs; he runs so fast,” the Spaniard said. “He’s strong on both sides from the baseline – I really like his backhand - and he’s mentally tough. I think he’s going to be a good player and someone who could push into the Top 30 or 40 this year.”
Happy as he was with his Wimbledon success, Kamke still had more work to do. He won he Granby Challenger in Canada in early August, the Tiburon Challenger in California in October and then shook down Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych 6-4, 6-1 in the first round of Basel. “It was one of the best matches of my life. I didn’t miss a ball. I could do whatever I wanted and everything went in. It was a very big win for me,” Kamke said.
Growing up in the historic port city of Lubeck, about 50 kilometres north-east of Hamburg, Kamke looked up to 1991 Wimbledon champion and 1996 Roland Garros finalist Stich more so than iconic German tennis legend Boris Becker. Stich later would become a mentor and an occasional practice partner. “Of course I watched both their matches but my father was a big Michael Stich fan,” Kamke recalled. “He came from the north of Germany from where I am and I liked his game more than Becker’s. Some years later after he retired, I met him at a Hamburg club where I played club matches and he practised and prepared for his exhibitions. We practised sometimes. He’s like an idol for me. Not just on the court, but off the court too. I was 17 when I met him the first time. I felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world to hit balls with him for 45 minutes.”
For now, Kamke, who in ’96 was at Roland Garros to watch Stich’s first three victories en route to the final, is focused on pushing further up the rankings and, perhaps, becoming Germany’s highest-ranked player in the years ahead. A former tennis powerhouse, Germany begins 2011 with 10 players inside the Top 100 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings. But only one, former World No. 5 Rainer Schuettler, has ever cracked the Top 20. German fans are hoping that Kamke continues his rise.
But on the ATP World Tour, nothing is for certain and you only get what you earn. Fellow German Florian Mayer, who was Newcomer Of The Year in 2004, told DEUCE that the season after his breakout year was tough. He ended 2004 at No. 33 – a mark that remains his career-high ranking more than six years later. “For me it happened too fast,” Mayer said. “I came from 250 to 33 in six months. Everything was new with the big tournaments, the big courts; it was a little too much for me in the beginning. And the second year is always the toughest one when your opponents know you much better. But he’s got a good coach and team around him, so I think he will have a good year in 2011. He’s very fast, with a great backhand. His only weakness is his serve, but when he improves that, he can easily reach the Top 50.”