After Yannick Hanfmann lost in the first round at Roland Garros against Rafael Nadal in 2019, he spoke about looking around the stadium and taking in the moment. The guy across the net wasn’t too shabby either. Nadal lost just six games that day.
“These are the toughest challenges in tennis for sure,” Hanfmann said in an interview with the tournament. “And it felt like it today.”
Hanfmann, who played college tennis at the University of Southern California, will get another shot at the legendary lefty on Wednesday in the second round of the Australian Open. His college coach, Peter Smith, is excited to watch from afar.
“To play those guys in majors is quite special,” Smith said. “He has to have the mindset of going out there to win the match, and he can do it. Some things need to go right, but you always have a chance, and he’s got to believe he has a chance.”
Just two weeks ago, Hanfmann was on Team Germany at the ATP Cup. Alexander Zverev had plenty of nice things to say about his countryman.
“I think Yannick is maybe the one who is quietest out of all of us,” Zverev said. “He’s a very good guy, he’s somebody that gets along with everybody well, one of the nicest guys on Tour.”
That does not mean Hanfmann is not a tough competitor. And according to Smith, his former player is a tremendous athlete.
“He knows he’s extremely capable. So if you are doing something with him, you’re playing basketball or we used to play ultimate frisbee, he knows he’s the best on the field. When he is, he’s got a swagger to him,” Smith said. “I just think it’s taken a while for him to get that swagger in tennis. Feeling just comfortable there, that he’s in the right place and can handle all of that.”
Hanfmann has also come through in big moments before with plenty of pressure on him. Smith recalled one moment when the German pulled off a gutsy comeback to help USC clinch the NCAA Championship. In the first round of qualifying last week, he rallied from a set and a break down against Jason Jung.
“In those situations, he’s a quiet fighter. But he is a fighter,” Smith said. “I have seen him in college matches, a national championship match, he was down match point, hit an unbelievable shot, came back and won the match. He has that in him.”
The 30-year-old is not the only former USC men’s tennis star in the Australian Open draw. Steve Johnson beat Jordan Thompson in the first round on Tuesday and Emilio Gomez also qualified for the main draw, losing against former World No. 3 Marin Cilic.
“Incredibly proud [of them]. They’re such incredibly great humans and just to see, you’re just pissed you’re not there,” Smith said. “I’ve been with them on the pro tour and just seeing them there, and they’re plenty good enough. Seeing them have that success, it’s very rewarding.”
Hanfmann will be especially confident after coming through qualifying and dismissing home favourite Thanasi Kokkinakis in the first round of the main draw. Kokkinakis was in great form after winning his first ATP Tour title on Saturday in Adelaide.
“He is a confident kid, but [it is about] knowing he belongs there. And he does belong there,” Smith said. “You don’t go out and beat Kokkinakis like he did. Kokkinakis is playing great. He’s got the game, that is for sure.”
The World No. 126 will have his work cut out for him against 20-time major champion Nadal. But Hanfmann, a two-time ATP Tour finalist, will give it his best shot.
“You never know, right? You never know. Stranger things have happened and that’s why they play the match,” Smith said. “That’s why they play the game. Rafa’s got to win it.”