He was born during the First World War and would die fighting in the Second. During his short, eventful life he rose to tennis stardom becoming the number three player in the world. Yet a little over five years after winning his first and only Grand Slam singles title he found himself trapped along with an entire German Army in the frozen wasteland around Stalingrad. There he would die on a brutally cold, mid-January day, one of millions of German soldiers who lost their lives on the Eastern Front. The only difference between him and so many others whose names have been lost to history was that his name has been etched into the tennis history books forever as a victor of the French Open. That man’s name, Heinrich “Henner” Henkel deserves to be remembered.
Best Of The Next Best – The Unexpected Champion
If asked to name the most famous German men’s tennis player of all time, most tennis experts would say Boris Becker. As a teenage wunderkind with a booming serve he took the tennis world by storm. By the age of 21 Becker had won three Wimbledon titles. In a long and notable career he won 49 titles, but none of these came on red clay. Clay was Becker’s kryptonite, especially at the French Open where he only made it as far as the semifinals twice. Because Becker and his countryman Michael Stich (runner-up 1996 French Open) failed to win in Paris, this left a forgotten man with a funny name as the last German to win the Grand Slam tournament. In 1937 the best German tennis player in the world was Gottfried von Cramm. Von Cramm played in three consecutive French Open finals from 1934-1936 winning two of them, but in 1937 the Nazi government would now allow him to play the event. He refused to comply with Nazi ideology and act as a tool for their propaganda. Von Cramm’s absence removed a major obstacle for Heinrich Henkel.
Dubbed “The Shadow Prince” because he played in the shadow of the more famous Von Cramm, the handsome, blond haired Henkel looked the part of a matinee idol. Born in Posen (present day Poznan, Poland), Henkel grew up in a family that loved tennis. Both his mother and father were avid players. When he started to show a keen interest in football, Henkel’s parents discouraged him from further pursuing the game. Instead they told him to focus on tennis. That he did, with fantastic results. By the time he turned 19 Henkel was a two time German junior champion and had become a member of the David Cup squad. His game was solid and sometimes spectacular. A blistering first serve won him many points easily. Many tennis experts rated him a greater talent than Von Cramm, but he seemed to lack the same drive and focus that had propelled his countryman to the top of tennis. Henkel was light hearted, enjoying life to a much greater degree than other world class players.
A Decisive Performance – A Devastating Fate
A better doubles than singles player, Henkel attained his greatest results playing with a partner. He made the finals of every Grand Slam tournament, winning both the French and U.S. Open titles with Von Cramm in 1937. Also in that year Henkel achieved his greatest feat in singles play on the red clay of the French Open. He started his title run in the second round. In those days, the French Open gave higher seeded players first round byes. Thus, to win the title Henkel would have to win six rather than seven matches. He cruised through the first three rounds against unseeded competition, losing only the 2nd set in a match against Raymond Tuckey of Great Britain. As the tournament went on Henkel’s play became even more impressive. Starting in the quarterfinals he defeated three consecutive seeded players, all without the loss of a single set. In the semifinals and final he destroyed the #2 and #1 seeds respectively, ceding only eight games to each of his opponents. It was one of the most decisive performances in Grand Slam history and one that Henkel would never repeat again in a Grand Slam singles tournament. He never played another match at the French Open. His best results from that point forward were a couple of semifinal finishes at Wimbledon.
As Germany became further and further engulfed by war, Henkel’s play at international tournaments was increasingly limited. He played his last major tournament abroad in Spain during the latter part of 1941. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the war increasingly began to hit home in the form of draft notices as the Third Reich required more and more manpower to sustain an army suffering massive casualties on the Eastern Front. Sporting heroes could not escape the grasp of military necessity. A total war meant mass mobilization. In 1942 while playing at a tournament in the spa resort town of Bad Pyrmont, messengers from the telegraph office brought news from the military recruiting office that Henkel had been drafted. He made it all the way to the final in what was to be his last tournament.
Always Known & Rarely Mentioned – A Famous Footnote
Later that same year Henkel received his baptism of fire in the fighting around Stalingrad. During battle he was seriously wounded in the upper thigh by a bullet. With the German Army surrounded on all sides there was no chance at evacuation. His condition soon worsened. The bitterly cold weather did not help matters. In mid-January 1943, Henner Henkel died from his wound in Rossosh, Soviet Union. He was just 27 years old. Three weeks later the German 6th Army surrendered. Henkel’s death was just one of an estimated 734,000 killed, wounded or missing German casualties. In a strange way death allowed Henkel to escape what would have proved an even harsher fate. If he had been one of the 108,000 Germans captured, it is almost certain that he would have been subjected to forced labor. Instead he was able to die with at least some dignity. Today Henner Henkel is little more than an answer to trivia questions, a footnote in French Open tennis history. His name is rarely mentioned, but at least it is known. He rightfully earned himself a place in the record books with his magnificent play at the 1937 French Open. For that he will always be known as a champion, a title that war can never take away from him.