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Nelly Neppach

Tennis Player

born September 16, 1891 in Frankfurt am Main – died May 7/8, 1933 in Berlin

  • German Tennis Champion 1925

Nelly Neppach was the first tennis star in Germany, and one of the very first female athletes ever to be celebrated worldwide. 

At the age of 18, young Nelly Bamberger, as was her maiden name, won her first tennis tournament. Originally from Frankfurt, she moved to Berlin in 1919 and began playing for Tennis Borussia. With her powerful strokes and audible intensity she catapulted herself to join the top female tennis competitors in Germany. She was a close second to the phenominal Ilse Friedleben who, like Neppach, came from a Jewish family and thus fleeing to Switzerland after the Nazis came into power. 

In the middle of the 1920s, both women remained the uncontested top German tennis players. In 1925 at the German championship in Hamburg, they met for the fourth consecutive time to face off in the final match. After a hart fought three-set match, Neppach emerged as the winner – and with her championship title she became the top ranked German tennis player.

Nelly Neppach was at the height of her career. With her aggressive playing style she embodied a modern female image and was a popular guest at tournaments throughout Europe. At the beginning of 1926 she received an invitation to the Riviera championships in Mentone, France. She accepted the invitation – completely unaware of the political turbulence that soon followed. The German Tennis Federation (DTB) immediately threatened to ban her from competing because she traveled without permission to the (then) despised country of France. Neppach reacted by stating that she had never received such a “warm welcome” as she did from the French, thus further incensing the authorities.

Upon her return, Neppach was banned by the DTB from playing tennis. The letter issued by the association, contained anti-Semitic undertones. In it, they accused her of surrounding herself with a “network of chummy writers” who were ultimately responsible for her popularity. Shortly thereafter Neppach was allowed to return to playing, but could no longer perform at the same level as she previously did. In the summer of 1926 she competed in the individual final match for the German championship for her final time. In 1932 she was ranked number nine by the DTB internal rankings list. 

On year later the underlying but perceptible anti-Semitism became official politics in Germany: In April of 1933 under pressure from the new powers, most Jewish members of Tennis Borussia left the club. One month later the DTB claimed to be “Jew free”. 

Nelly Neppach began to realize that Germany no longer offered the opportunity for her to continue her career. Isolated from sports and plagued with depression, she took her life on the night of May 7th1933. 

It remains unclear whether her banishment from Tennis motivated her to take her own life; she did not write a suicide note. Some contemporary resources speculated that she took her life in order to relieve her “aryan” husband – famous film producer Robert Neppach – of any troubles. Several newspaper reports assumed that her suicide was the direct result of her abrupt and forced career ending. Even the New York Times published her obiturary. 

The magazine Tennis and Golf, the official resource of the DTB, did not bother to publish more than a few lines in remembrance of their star player. The announcement can be found in the May 1933 issue hidden between other reports. The magazine wrote of Nelly Neppach’s life coming to a “fast end”, thereby insinuating that a problem was solved.

Henry Wahlig