General Thomas
German Democratic Republik
Berlin, German Democratic Republik


The following piece originally appeared in the book entitled ‘Tennis in Deutschland. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Zum 100-jährigen Bestehen des Deutschen Tennis Bundes.’/‘Tennis in Germany. From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the German Tennis Federation’. The book in question was first published in 2002.

Thomas Emmrich – The Champion Behind the Berlin Wall

By Klaus Weise

[Translated from the German by Mark Ryan]

He was 17 years old when he won the men’s singles title at the East German Championships for the first time – the youngest champion there had ever been. Thomas Emmrich won his last title in 1988 in the country with the word ‘democratic’ in its name, which had banned its tennis players from taking part in international tournaments in a very autocratic manner. In the end he would have won more than his total of 48 titles at the East German Championships, including 17 in the men’s singles event, if the Berlin-born player who chose Magdeburg as his home had not missed the tournament in 1989 and 1990 because of injury.

For many years, and not just in other eastern European countries, Emmrich was a synonym for tennis in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). There were words of praise for the excellent serve-and-volleyer from top names in the sport. Martina Navratilova said: “He would have won tournaments on the ATP tour and been a Top 20 player.” “He was a huge talent,” said Günter Bosch. Nice words that bring little satisfaction and that cannot rewrite history, which unfolded in a very twisted manner.

“From a purely tennis point of view, I should have cleared off to the West,” says Emmrich today. But he didn’t, and that’s why he doesn’t bring the matter up himself and doesn’t talk of what might have been. He also doesn’t want revenge or for heads to roll. “It’s very true that I still become angry when I think about those who prevented me from doing what I wanted, about demagogues and those who were simply incompetent. But what good is that now? Back then they would have had to be gotten rid of. Today I say to myself, let them live on.”

For as long as he could, Thomas Emmrich crossed rackets with aces such as the Czechoslovaks Ivan Lendl, Tomas Smid and Pavel Slozi, the Hungarians Balasz Taroczy and Szabolcs Baranyi, the Soviets Alex Metreveli, Pavel Korotkov and Vadim Borisov, and the Poles Wojciech Fibak and Henrik Drzymalski. He rarely looked bad in such company and often won. He was invited to act as a practice partner for the Davis Cup teams from the ‘brother countries’ but Emmrich himself was never allowed to take part in the Davis Cup.

From an interview he gave in 1977 for ‘Tennis’, the East German Tennis Federation’s official magazine, it is clear that, out of necessity, he didn’t really say what he was thinking about the sort of freedom he needed. However, in the interview he did say the following: “Every tennis player would like to play at Wimbledon at some time or other, but not only at Wimbledon.” He also said that he would like to take part in the Davis Cup, “in order to regularly meet world-class players and to further develop my game while doing so”.

If one has to understand that he wasn’t allowed to win anything big, then he also had nothing to lose. “I would have instinctively stopped playing at 25. I knew that the borders – in the most concrete of terms – were closed off. I was simply born a few kilometres too far to the east,” says Emmrich, who was born in the district of Friedrichshain in Berlin.

He had a stage of his own on which to perform. After winning his first two or three titles, the East German Championships became a tournament he could simply stroll through. Every victory on the world stage, every set won against a world-class player would have been worth more. Thomas Emmrich is no misanthrope. He takes the people around him as they are. But without necessarily liking them. “A nice court, a certain level of play, spectators, tennis balls – I used small things to motivate myself.”

At certain tournaments Emmrich set a limit on the number of games he would lose, at others he deliberately set out to see how far he would progress if he only played forehands. For 15 years he didn’t lose a single match against another player from the GDR – with one exception. That was when, despite a rib injury, he appeared for his club, Motor Mitte Magdeburg, when no one else was able to play.

When pushy officials put pressure on him to join the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the state party of the GDR, Emmrich remained as amazingly straightforward as he was in all other things. “I said to them: I’m a talented player stuck here in the backside of the world. If you don’t let me play in the West and don’t change your rules, then I won’t become a member of your party. If they had allowed me to travel, I would have become a member of the party,” he openly admits.

He doesn’t think that he was being opportunistic. Emmrich still can’t fully understand the stupid way in which the GDR treated its citizens. They could have talked about a lot of things if they had wanted to. But instead of talking there was only dictating. So, things couldn’t have been any different.

When Emmrich and his doubles partner each won 1,700 dollars at an ATP tournament in Bulgaria, he wasn’t allowed to take the money home. Not even in order to hand it over to the tennis authorities in the GDR, who could then have used it to buy tennis equipment or something else. “The tournament organisers must surely have wanted to invite me back again the following year. Instead there was trouble and discussions at home if you were seen wearing Adidas socks in a photograph.” Everyday life in the ‘sporting miracle’ known as East Germany.

What’s more, Thomas Emmrich’s name never appeared on the list of candidates for Sportsperson of the Year in the GDR. Nevertheless, he was a star in the country of the countless sporting giants with Olympic and other types of medals. “The people knew that the same thing was happening to me that was happening to them in their everyday lives,” he says. “They wanted to do things but weren’t allowed to. I was a star in East Germany because I wasn’t allowed to become a star. It was a bit like the solidarity of the oppressed.”


Archive statistics 1968 - 1984

Tournament wins 1984 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1983 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1983 - Polish International Championships (Amateur)
1983 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1982 - Polish International Championships (Amateur)
1982 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1981 - Czechoslovak International Covered Courts (Open)
1981 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1980 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1980 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1979 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1979 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1978 - Polish International Championships (Amateur)
1978 - Brasov Indoor (Open)
1978 - Romanian International Championship (Open)
1978 - Sofia International Covered Courts (Amateur)
1978 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1977 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1977 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1976 - Timisoara Indoor (Amateur)
1976 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1976 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1975 - Poznań Championships (Amateur)
1975 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1975 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1975 - Baltic Cup (Amateur)
1974 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1974 - Pilsen Indoors (Open)
1973 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1973 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1972 - Zinnowitz (Amateur)
1972 - Bulgarian International Championships (Amateur)
1972 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1971 - East German Championships (Amateur)
1970 - East German Championships (Amateur)

Tournaments Zinnowitz - 1984 Polish International Championships - 1983 East German Championships - 1983 Zinnowitz - 1983 Czechoslovakian International Championships - 1982 Polish International Championships - 1982 Zinnowitz - 1982 World University Games - 1981 Zinnowitz - 1981 Sofia Open - 1981 Czechoslovak International Covered Courts - 1981 Czechoslovakian International Championships - 1980 East German Championships - 1980 Zinnowitz - 1980 Sofia Open - 1980 Czechoslovakian International Championships - 1979 East German Championships - 1979 Zinnowitz - 1979 Czechoslovakian International Championships - 1978 Polish International Championships - 1978 Romanian International Championship - 1978 East German Championships - 1978 Zinnowitz - 1978 Czechoslovak International Covered Courts - 1978 Brasov Indoor - 1978 Sofia International Covered Courts - 1978 Czechoslovakian International Championships - 1977 East German Championships - 1977 World University Games - 1977 Zinnowitz - 1977 East German Championships - 1976 Zinnowitz - 1976 Brasov Indoor - 1976 Timisoara Indoor - 1976 East German Championships - 1975 Baltic Cup - 1975 Zinnowitz - 1975 Poznań Championships - 1975 East German Championships - 1974 Moskwa International - 1974 Zinnowitz - 1974 Czechoslovakian Clay Courts - 1974 Pilsen Indoors - 1974 East German Championships - 1973 World University Games - 1973 Zinnowitz - 1973 USSR International Championships - 1972 Bulgarian International Championships - 1972 Zinnowitz - 1972 East German Championships - 1971 Zinnowitz - 1971 East German Championships - 1970 Zinnowitz - 1970 Zinnowitz - 1969 Hamburg Whitsun - 1968 Zinnowitz - 1968

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