Ahead of her Grand Slam qualifying debut at Wimbledon this week, rising German youngster Jule Niemeier is unfazed and relaxed.
"There's always a discussion in Germany about who's coming next, and who is the next generation," she says. "But to be honest, I don't feel the pressure."
An inaugural pair of new German grass-court tournaments this month - a WTA 500 in Berlin last week and a WTA 250 in Bad Homburg this week - has turned the spotlight on to the state of the country's tennis amidst a growing awareness that its "golden generation" of top WTA stars is nearing an end.
The past two years have seen the retirements of two former Top 20 players, Julia Goerges and Anna-Lena Groenefeld, three-time Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber, former World No.9 Andrea Petkovic and stalwart Laura Siegemund are all 33 years old, and still comprise three of Germany's top four spots in the rankings. Injury-afflicted former Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki, 31, has competed just twice in the past year and is now ranked World No.643. In 2019, Barbara Rittner, the head of women's tennis at the German Tennis Federation, described a "frightening overall picture".
This month, Niemeier has brightened up that picture substantially. The 21-year-old made her breakthrough on clay in Strasbourg, qualifying for her second WTA main draw with a defeat of compatriot and former training partner Petkovic. She went all the way to the semifinals, upsetting Shelby Rogers and Arantxa Rus en route, before stretching Barbora Krejcikova to a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 loss. Krejcikova would go on to win both the Strasbourg title and Roland Garros two weeks later.
In Berlin last week, Niemeier qualified again, this time via wins over both 2017 Wimbledon junior finalists, Ann Li and Claire Liu. In the main draw, she faced a Top 20 opponent for the first time in eventual runner-up Belinda Bencic and again pushed the Swiss before falling 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. Having ended 2020 ranked World No.280, she now sits at World No.168.
Most importantly, Niemeier's substantial talent was immediately evident in both tournaments. She possesses a hefty serve and easy, casual power off the forehand - but also delicate touch that allows her to conjure up all manner of finesse shots.
All of this comes naturally to her.
"When I started playing tennis, it was not that I really focused on special shots like dropshots or volleying," Niemeier says. "It was just there. I always felt like I don't really need to spend that much time on court. [I've had injuries] in the last two years and I couldn't play for, let's say, six weeks at a time. And then I went on court and it felt like I had been hitting every day for those six weeks."
A former Top 30 junior, Niemeier's nagging injuries as a teenager - shoulder problems as a junior, a back issue in 2019 - led her to form a long-term plan to transition into a professional career. The first stages of this came at the Alexander Waske academy in Offenbach, where she trained for the past six years alongside luminaries of German tennis such as Petkovic. Since May, though, Niemeier has been working with Jennifer Brady's former coach Michael Geserer in Regensburg, with Bogdan Dzudzewicz acting as her travelling coach.
"They're both such nice persons," she says. "Especially Michael's really calm. He was just always telling me, just focus on my game, don't think about points or tournaments you want to play or what other people are thinking. And it really helped me lot to just focus on what I really have to do it to win a match or to win a point. He watched the match [against Bencic] and he told me that it was just about experience."
Geserer's ability to strip out extraneous matters has also been key in preparing Niemeier for the inevitable comparisons from the German media, not only to Kerber and Petkovic but to previous Grand Slam champions from Stefanie Graf to Boris Becker.
"I knew that this was going to come soon," Niemeier says. "Michael told me that people are going to talk about it. It's funny - someone was just passing today and said, 'Oh, there's the new German top player, blah blah blah.' You just have to learn how to handle it."
Niemeier's calm exterior belies a drive to reach the top of the game and a belief that she belongs there. Asked about the close losses to Krejcikova and Bencic, Niemeier says that she is motivated by feeling she could have done better.
"I had some mixed feelings," she says of the Bencic match. "It was definitely my best match, which is which is good. But I was a bit angry and disappointed. It's just about small details. When I had two break points in the second set, she served two aces - but I felt like she just served two aces because she was so angry on court. It was not really on purpose. She put everything into the serve."
Similarly, Niemeier felt her loss to Krejcikova was a missed opportunity.
"I'm also a bit angry about it," she says. "I lost the match because I didn't play my best tennis that day, and I could have played much better. I expected her to play a bit better, to be honest. I had this weird feeling and I was just not really focusing on my game, what I really have to do. I was mentally really tired. But it is like this. You cannot win every match. You just have to learn from it."
Niemeier, who first picked up a racquet to play tennis in the street with her two older brothers when she was 3 years old, has had to learn the art of delayed gratification as she has risen through the ranks at her own pace. A junior peer of players such as Marketa Vondrousova, CiCi Bellis and Elena Rybakina, Niemeier initially compared her milestones to theirs. But the WTA Tour in 2021 is all about the best talents finding their own routes to the top in their own time, with Ashleigh Barty and Barbora Krejcikova among those shattering the assumption that young stars need a rapid and seamless upward trajectory.
"When I was 17, I wanted to be a really good player, but not in juniors. I wanted to be a player in women's tennis. And I always felt like I'm too old. I told myself I didn't achieve anything so far. But you cannot compare yourself with other players, and I did it way too often in the past.
"Michael is always telling me, 'You're just 21! You still have so much time and you get to play tennis for the next 10 years, probably. There's so much time to improve.' Look at Coco Gauff now - she's 17 and she's ranked 20-something. Or [Amanda] Anisimova, who was Top 50 when she was 17. But I'm not sure it's good. If you're that good when you're still 17 or 18, there's not that much space to improve. But when you're 21 and you're around No.100, you can really improve a lot.
"[Karolina] Muchova, for example - she's 24. A couple of months ago, we checked her results and she was also playing ITF W25s two or three years ago. And then all of a sudden she started playing well, she won tournaments and now she's in the Top 30. It always depends on the player, and that's why you cannot compare yourself to other players."
A tattoo on Niemeier's left arm, a mountain with the word "Perseverance" beneath it, is a daily reminder of the hard, slow work she has done to overcome the injuries that delayed her progress. It's one of three (and counting) tattoos she has, with the others representing her family. The III/III on her arm symbolises that she is the third of three children, with her two brothers having the preceding two tattoos in the series.
That perseverance is coming to fruition now. Niemeier kicks off her Wimbledon campaign this week against Natalia Vikhlyantseva and describes herself as "pumped" at the prospect of her debut.
With Germany's best junior prospects - 17-year-olds Noma Noha Akugue and Nastasja Schunk, and 18-year-old Julia Middendorf - delivering promising results this year, but still some way off the WTA Tour proper, Niemeier is aware that she will shoulder the questions about the future of the country's tennis alone for a while. And she's happy with that.
"That's OK for me," she says. "I mean, it's an honour to be the one who can be one of the best players in Germany after such a good generation with Petko, Kerber and Goerges. I feel more honoured than I feel pressure."