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.
Hans Nüsslein – The Banned World Champion
By Rainer Deike
[Translated from the German by Mark Ryan]
Hanne Nüsslein was a tennis great. But scarcely anyone is aware of this fact. Hanne Nüsslein was world professional tennis champion. He played the game at a time when it was a leisure activity for the wealthy. To earn money by or through sport was considered improper. Professionals were, more or less, circus people, vagabonds from some sort of other world. Opinions vary as to exactly how long the ‘white sport’ had been that way. ‘Tennis equals posh’ – the formula continued to be used long after World War Two.
Hanne’s real name was actually Hans. He was born on 10 March 1910 in Nuremberg. After leaving school he completed a mechanical apprenticeship. Even as a child he was an athlete through and through. He could run and jump, played handball and football. It is no wonder that he soon learned how to play tennis. He even taught himself how to do so when acting as a ballboy.
“When I was 16, I earned a few shillings at the First FC club in Nuremberg and also sometimes helped the club management and, for a few marks, gave club members lessons. Someone reported this to the German Tennis Federation.” This someone was from a neighbouring club. His name was never discovered. The consequences for Hans Nüsslein were terrible. He was barred from all amateur competitions for life! Playing at Roland Garros, Forest Hills or Wimbledon would forever be the thing of dreams for him.
What a Davis Cup team that would have been – von Cramm, Nüsslein and Henkel! To which Hanne Nüsslein says, smiling: “The tops.” The famous French Musketeers would have had their successors and ‘the ugliest salad bowl in the world’ would have come to Germany in the 1930s. If only…
Hans Nüsslein first came to public attention in 1927. The First FC football club in Nuremberg had built a new tennis complex, and Roman Najuch and Hermann ‘Wackl’ Richter, two professional players from Berlin, were invited to take part in the opening ceremony. A doubles player failed to turn up. The 17-year-old Nüsslein stepped in – and caused a sensation. Najuch and Richter brought Nüsslein to the capital. Whoever or whatever the people of Berlin take to their hearts has to have a nickname. Erich became ‘Ete’ and Kurt became ‘Kutte’, so Hans became ‘Hanne’.
On 1 April 1928, soon after his eighteenth birthday, Hans Nüsslein passed the entrance exam for the Association of German Tennis Coaches. This is how tennis finally became his profession – on the one hand as a coach in the service of Deutsche Bank, on the other as a successful player. What really marked him out was his ability to always be standing where the ball bounced. Contemporaries could find no weaknesses. He had a fast and accurate baseline game, perfect footwork, good ball control, quick reflexes, good timing and fantastic volleys, half-volleys and drop shots.
Nüsslein’s rise among tennis professionals was rapid. In 1929, at the age of 19, he finished third at the German Professional Championships. In 1930, he was second. In that year he travelled abroad for the first time, to Beaulieu on the French Riviera. He had saved up the money to do so. However, he was unable to stay at the Hotel Bristol in Beaulieu because he lacked the required tuxedo. However, this problem did not spoil his mood. Surprisingly, he won the tournament and became known internationally.
Hans Nüsslein made the breakthrough to world-class level in 1931. He became German professional champion (and at the same time unofficial European champion) by defeating Roman Najuch, who had previously won the title eleven times in a row. And Nüsslein met ‘Big Bill’ Tilden for the first time. For many observers Tilden was the greatest player of all time. The American, three times Wimbledon champion, had organised his own professional circus and, although he was 38 years old, was considered virtually invincible. “Who is Nüsslein?” Tilden is said to have asked. After the German had been beaten only in five long sets, this question was not put again. Tilden and Nüsslein became friends, and ‘Big Bill’ invited Hanne to take part in a series of matches in the USA.
In the autumn of 1933, the World Professional Championships took place on the courts of the Blau-Weiss Club in Berlin. Nüsslein beat Tilden 1-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 in front of 7,000 spectators. A reporter for the British publication ‘Lawn Tennis and Badminton’ wrote that the 23-year-old Nüsslein simply had no nerves. Looking back on the match, Nüsslein said: “When I was a young man, I wanted to get to know the world and to achieve the highest goals in sport. And I did both things! When I had become world champion, I felt like the loneliest person in the world. That is the feeling you have when you are standing on the highest rung of the ladder.”
Hanne Nüsslein won two more world professional championship titles: in 1935 against Henri Cochet, one of the French Musketeers, and in 1937, again against Tilden, who subsequently praised his German friend, not only as an exceptional tennis coach, but also as “probably the best player in the world”. On 7 October 1934, the match that many tennis enthusiasts had been dying to see – Hans Nüsslein versus Gottfried von Cramm – took place in Berlin. In other words, a match between an amateur and a (banned) professional. Nüsslein had a bad day at the office. Although he won the first set, he lost the next three easily.
In 1936, Nüsslein moved to Cologne and the Rot-Weiss Club in Berlin contracted him out. He began to coach more and to play less tennis. At the end of the 1930s, he coached the winner of the first Grand Slam in the history of tennis, Donald Budge, as well as the Australian Davis Cup team and the top German players. However, he was unable to facilitate a German victory in the Davis Cup because the Nazis had sidelined Gottfried von Cramm.
Shortly before the end of World War Two, the soldier Hanne Nüsslein suffered an arm injury, which affected his playing ability. As early as 1948, the English honoured him as the ambassador for a better Germany by inviting him to take part in the professional tournament at Wembley. In 1954, he played his last official match, in Bad Ems, where he won the international championships for tennis coaches.
He was devoted to up-and-coming tennis players. He was convinced that footwork makes up 70 per cent of a player’s performance capacity. “One must run to the ball in such a way that one can hit it comfortably.” Everything must be subordinated to the training, regardless of whether one has to walk, to cycle, to take the bus or the train. The best players he coached were the ‘Class of 39’: Wilhelm Bungert, Christian Kuhnke, Dieter Ecklebe and Wolfgang ‘Paule’ Stuck. The Hanne Nüsslein Foundation was established to promote talent. Its first scholarship holders included Carl-Uwe Stebe and Patrick Kühne, both future Davis Cup players.
The first German world tennis champion died on 28 June 1991 at the age of 81 following a heart attack. Hanne Nüsslein had waited until he was 72 before marrying because he did not want to subject his wife, Anneliese, to the life of a globetrotter. At the age of 70 he was still to be found on a tennis court, giving lessons as a coach.
For Wilhelm Bungert, Hanne Nüsslein was ‘the great champion’.
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