The scene is familiar at the City Park/Pepsi Tennis Center.
In an intense practice point with teammate Constantin Schmitz, Tulane’s Dominik Koepfer, the No. 1-ranked NCAA men’s player, retrieves one shot after another before Schmitz charges the net behind a forehand drive into the corner. Lunging to his left, Koepfer hooks a cross-court backhand past Schmitz for a winner, pumps his fist and screams.
Game to Koepfer. Again.
After becoming the first Tulane player since 1955 to win a national singles tournament in the fall (ITA All-American Championships), Koepfer, a senior from Furtwangen, Germany, has gathered even more momentum in the spring. He won 16 straight matches at No. 1 singles before losing to South Florida’s fifth-ranked Roberto Cid on April 10, and even that defeat came with an asterisk. Because USF already had clinched the dual match, college rules dictated they play a tie-break instead of a full third set to determine the winner.
Koepfer, who held match points in the second set, could get a rematch with Cid on Saturday if fourth-seeded Tulane advances to the American Athletic Conference semifinals as expected. Regardless, he is playing well enough to win the NCAA individual singles title in May.
“Everything has come together,” he said. “The mental game, how I keep improving my shots, how I prepare for matches, my recovery, everything.”
Although he is soft-spoken off the court, Koepfer’s competitiveness comes front and center when he steps between the lines. The way he emoted, it was impossible to tell the difference between his practice match with Schmitz, Tulane’s No. 2, and a real match.
That drive has helped him improve each year. He went from the middle of the Tulane lineup as a freshman to second-team All-Conference USA as a sophomore to All-America honors and a No. 12 ranking as a junior before ascending to the top spot this season.
“His level of intensity is one of the reasons he’s been able to excel and develop his game,” Tulane coach Mark Booras said. “Every day he pushes himself to the limit. Whether he’s playing our No. 2 guy or our No. 9 guy, he’s fighting, he’s running and he’s screaming.”
Koepfer handled the pressure of being at the top with aplomb. He lost only one set in his first 16 spring matches — to LSU’s Jordan Daigle — and responded by thrashing him 6-0 in the third set.
He earned his 100th career victory last week, placing him third on Tulane’s all-time list, and will enter Friday’s AAC tournament quarterfinal against Memphis with a sparkling 17-1 spring record.
Koepfer has a complete game, balancing outstanding defensive skills with a newfound aggression that allows him to end points quickly. The biggest difference between this year and the past, though, is his unswerving self-belief.
“The thing that improved the most was the mental side of the game and just going for bigger shots,” he said. “I stopped wondering what the other guy was doing and am just playing my game and taking it to him.”
He has helped take Tulane to unprecedented post-Katrina heights. Ranked 31st nationally and getting strong play throughout the lineup, the Green Wave (14-7) is a virtual lock for the 64-team NCAA tournament field for the first time since 2005.
With six of its seven dual-match defeats coming 4-3, including a pair to top-10 opponents USC and Texas Tech, Koepfer said he believes Tulane can reach the Sweet 16 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
An achievement like that would wipe away the sour taste of his lone spring loss, which dropped him to No. 2 in the rankings.
“It was a heartbreaker for him, but it’s almost impossible to be perfect,” Booras said. “If you look at Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, they all have losses on their record. Better now than in the NCAA tournament if he’s going in there with all the pressure of being undefeated.”