April 21, 2005
College is about going to class and earning a degree. It's about meeting friends for life and enjoying your first time away from home. For a student-athlete, it's about competing on a high level and getting the most out of your physical talents. Ultimately, however, college is about growing up and becoming the best person you can be.
For Green Wave senior tennis standout Dmitriy Koch, that journey began on the courts of Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, in what was then the Soviet Union, when he was six years old. His sister (Dasha), who is five years older than Dmitriy, played tennis regularly. Her younger brother watched and soon picked up a racket and said he wanted to play too. It didn't take long to realize that he had a knack for the sport.
"I played my first tournament when I was seven years old and won," Koch said. "So I thought I might be pretty good at it."
While his game developed with regular practice and by competing in youth tournaments (he was the top-rated Under-12 player in the Soviet Union), the next big step for Koch came in 1994 when, as a 13-year old, his family moved to Germany, the home country of his father, Eugeniy. After playing in a couple of tournaments there, Dmitriy qualified for the national championships [for his age group], advancing to the semifinals and earning a spot on the German National Team.
"When I finished third at the national championship, things really started developing," Koch said.
As a national team member, he received support from his state's tennis federation (Lower Saxony). While the opportunities to receive better coaching and support were welcomed, they did not come without a price. The main headquarters for his federation was a 90-minute drive from Koch's home in Bueckeburg. He was expected to make that journey two or three times a week, while continuing with school and the life of a 14-year old.
"If it was not for my mother [Irina], I would have probably quit tennis during that time," Koch said. "It was not easy, I had to sacrifice a lot, but she supported me so much. If it was not for her, I probably would not be here now."
Koch's mother's family had moved from Kazakhstan to the Ukraine, and Koch, wanting to spend more time with his grandmother, Eugenia, with whom he was very close growing up, eventually returned to the former Soviet Union republic to study at a university there. However, he had already set his sights on the United States and the educational opportunities his tennis-playing could provide him.
Meanwhile, Green Wave head coach Robert Klein was tipped off to Koch's ability by another player he was recruiting. The player, who was familiar with other Green Wave players, spoke highly of Koch and said he would fit in well with the team. Klein researched the German standout and began the recruitment process.
While Koch was a mature young adult who had traveled through much of the world playing tennis, he was still apprehensive about attending college without any sort of support network.
Enter Michael Kogan, who had completed his second season with the Tulane program and was well on his way to becoming one of the greatest players in school history.
"Michael Kogan was the main reason I chose Tulane," Koch said. "He was a big influence on me. He was from Uzbekistan, a neighboring country, and we both spoke Russian. Everything was going to be new for me, so I wanted to know at least one person who I could talk to, and he told me he would help me out with everything. He also told me it was a good university with good academics and an excellent tennis program."
Koch arrived on campus for the spring semester of 2003 and made an immediate impact for the Green Wave, helping the team to one of its most successful seasons in the last 50 years. He earned all-conference recognition while posting a 16-5 record in singles and a 16-7 mark in doubles action, and the Wave won the Conference USA Championship before winning an NCAA Regional and advancing to the NCAA Sweet 16 in Athens, Ga.
"The Sweet Sixteen was an amazing experience," Koch said. "That is one of our goals for this year, to win conference again, make the NCAAs and get back to the Sweet Sixteen. That would be big."
After his success in his Tulane debut season, he returned to the Green Wave in the fall of 2003 ready to take his game to another level, which is exactly what he did. A junior at the time, Koch was nationally-ranked, but still relatively unknown at the ITA Region III Indoor Championship in Memphis. However, he played tremendous tennis at the event, winning five straight matches before losing in the Championship match to the 11th-ranked player in the nation.
"That was his best performance," Klein said. "His confidence was high and he was serving well and moving well, returning everything that was hit at him. The ball looked like a grapefruit to him."
That run at the regional tournament earned Koch a bid to the ITA National Indoor Championship, along with Kogan. It was the first time that Tulane had two players selected for the prestigious tournament, which features only the best players in the nation.
However, soon after the regionals, Koch suffered a back injury, which has proven to be his toughest adversary yet. He missed the ITA National Tournament and was hampered throughout last spring as well, not that his opponents noticed. He still won 14 of 18 spring matches and earned all-conference honors while helping the Green Wave to another Conference USA title and another NCAA Tournament appearance. Still, the persistent back injury kept him out of the NCAA Singles Championship.
"To play well in tennis, you need a combination of physical ability and confidence," Klein said. "Because of the injury, Dmitriy has lost some confidence. This fall, he was not able to practice enough or play enough matches. He played through pain, but the big thing is playing through the concern and worry about hurting himself again."
After the abbreviated fall campaign, Koch found himself with an added burden this spring. He was now the No. 1 singles player for the Green Wave.
"Playing at No. 1, you don't have any easy matches," Tulane assistant coach Michael Lang said. "Every team in the country has at least one very strong player. Which means at No. 1, you will always have a battle. And when you're trying to get back healthy and regain your confidence, it makes it that much harder. But Dmitriy has kept fighting, and he is still our best chance of winning those matches."
"I am still struggling," Koch admitted. "I am trying to find my game. I don't think I will ever be 100 percent healthy again, but I feel a little better about my tennis right now. I am the type of person who is never satisfied with myself. It's tough because I have had only two or three matches in my entire college career where I felt like I played at my best [at the ITA Regional Tournament]."
While Koch perseveres and works to return his game to the highest level, he remains focused on team goals, as well as the idea of team tennis, which is a very "foreign" concept to most players.
"Team tennis is a lot different," Koch said. "When playing in tournaments, you play for yourself. Here it is for yourself AND the team. If you lose as an individual, it's all on you, but if you lose here, it affects the whole team. It's more pressure, but it is also more rewarding when you win."
Koch opened the spring with a No. 59 national ranking and with his ability, he could very well have challenged for All-America recognition and other individual honors. However, Klein has done whatever he can to keep his star healthy. Many of Koch's matches against top players have been halted - with Koch in the lead (coaches can agree to stop matches as soon as the team victory is clinched). This has affected not only his ranking, but also his potential to qualify for the NCAA Singles Championship, yet the senior has never complained. The way Koch has embraced the team concept of tennis has drawn rave reviews from Klein.
"He has put the team first; he has made sure to do what he needed to keep healthy," Klein said. "We need to keep him healthy to keep us in the top 20. He has never complained about losing opportunities to be an All-American or to win individual honors. I have the greatest respect for him. He has handled the situation in a great manner."
Koch's success and health are key for the Green Wave in the postseason. Tulane will look for its third straight Conference USA title at the league championship April 21-24 in Louisville. A victory there will result in the Wave making its ninth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
After losing three matches early in the season, Tulane has rolled to 12 wins in its last 13 matches to improve to 17-4. Included in that stretch, is the Green Wave's first championship at the prestigious Blue-Gray Tennis Classic.
"Every year, we start really slow and we struggle, but our chemistry gets better and better, and we feel like a team again, we compete, and we can win at every spot right now," Koch said. "I think we are ready for conference."
"Dmitiry has come on like gangbusters recently," Klein said. "He is playing some of his best tennis right now. He brings a quiet type of leadership to this team. We need him to be healthy and competing for every point; and the team know that if he does that, he will be in any match with anybody in the country. If he plays well in singles and doubles, he puts us in a position to succeed at the conference level and at the NCAAs. We would not have had our success this year without Dmitriy."
While battling adversity on the court, Koch has remained focused in the classroom and expects to earn his Tulane diploma in December with a double major in finance and management from the Freeman School of Business.
Dmitriy Koch had quite a journey to reach Tulane University. Since his arrival, he has been a well-honored tennis standout - earning All-Conference USA recognition, All-Louisiana accolades and national rankings. Yet as his college career comes to a close, his ultimate prize will be the experiences which have made him into a better person, more prepared to succeed in the world.