Something clicked for Jule Niemeier on the lawn courts at Wimbledon.
Until this week, her best results and all her titles have been on clay. In 2018, she won her first ITF Pro title and a cheque for US$2,352 in Kaltenkirchen, a commuter town near Hamburg. A little over a year later she moved up to winning the W25 Leipzig Open.
For a while injuries impeded her progress, but last year she won the W25 in Prague and was a semi-finalist at the WTA 250 Internationaux de Strasbourg, losing in three sets to Barbora Krejčíková, who just a few weeks later would become champion at Roland Garros.
A month ago, after losing to Sloane Stephens 5-7 6-4 2-6 in the first round at Roland Garros, Niemeier decamped to Croatia and claimed her biggest title at the Makarska Open WTA 125.
So a run to the quarter finals at Wimbledon was not easily predicted.
As a child Niemeier was surrounded by tennis. Her mother was a club player and her brothers enjoyed a hit. So the baby of the family took to the court at the age of three.
As her talent for the game became clear, she decided to pursue the sport professionally.
Through word of mouth, Niemeier heard of somewhere she could get specialised training and tournament support while continuing her academic lessons in “German, English, Maths and the usual subjects”, the Alexander Waske Tennis University in Frankfurt, alma mater to Andrea Petkovic.
While playing a tournament in 2015, she happened to meet Alexander Waske. “He said, ‘Yeah, come to our Academy and try it’. So I tried one week and it was really good and I stayed.”
Two years later, accompanied by coach Bastian Suwanprateep from the Tennis University, she got her first taste of a Slam, getting through qualifying and into the Juniors event at the Australian Open. There she beat the No. 9 seed in Singles, making the second round where the 36°C heat defeated her, and with partner Ali Collins, getting past the 8th seeds and into the Doubles quarter finals.
She was excited about her tennis future. “Everything is new here. There are so many pro players here. I watched Rafa’s practice.
“Of course, there are so many different emotions: good or bad, it depends. So many impressions. All in all, it was a perfect two weeks.
“Next time when I’m here, I will hopefully play pros. Now is my last year of Juniors, next year I play pros all year.”
But between that junior tournament at the 2017 Australian Open and this year’s Roland Garros, she didn’t play another Slam.
The injuries and their lingering effect on her form prevented her return to Melbourne until this year. Although she didn’t make it through qualifying for the Open, she remained in the city to attend the tournament and learn with coach Christopher Kas, and could be seen taking in every moment of Rafa Nadal’s practice session on an outside court.
Transitioning to grass, she was granted two wild cards to warm up events for Wimbledon; the Bett1Open in Berlin where, in a replica of last year’s first round, she lost in three sets to Belinda Bencic, and Bad Homburg where she lost in three to defending champion and No. 1 seed Daria Kasatkina in the second round. So, again, there was no indication of what was about to transpire on the Wimbledon grass.
Heading to qualifying at Wimbledon, she had to banish from her mind the two match points she couldn’t convert in the final round of the 2021 qualies.
Awaiting her in the first round of the main draw was Xiyu Wang, who was beaten 1 and 4 for Niemeier’s first Slam win.
Next in line was No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit. It was the first time in her career Niemeier would face a current Top 10 player.
A break point thanks to a dead net cord, followed by a Kontaveit error, and she took the first set 6-4. In the second, she controlled the play brilliantly, preventing Kontaveit from getting a game. She chipped and sliced and pounded topspin winners. A variety of other winners were volleyed, lobbed and dropshotted. The match was hers in under an hour.
“I played two former Top 10 players before,” she said after the match, “and I knew that I had the level. It was pretty close. I lost twice in three sets. I knew I had the level to beat those players, and I’m really happy I could do it today.”
As a junior, Niemeier had a great serve and powerful forehand. She was also a handy volleyer but now, at 22, her net play has developed considerably as has her speed around the court.
Lesia Tsurenko experienced all of Niemeier’s assets in the third round, going down in three sets. It was the same for Heather Watson in straight sets.
From making her first appearance in the main draw of a Slam in her loss at Roland Garros a month earlier, she’d won four matches in a row at Wimbledon.
Unluckily for German tennis fans, compatriot Tatjana Maria would be her next opponent and one of them would obviously bow out.
Maria came with a great backstory. A 34 year old mother of two who last year changed to a single handed backhand during her maternity leave.
On her way to the quarters, she had beaten Astra Sharma, then three seeded opponents: Sorana Cîrstea, seeded 26, Maria Sakkari, 5, and Jelena Ostapenko, 12.
Both players were in the unfamiliar territory of a Grand Slam quarter final.
Niemeier looked nervous waiting to start the walk down the hallways for their first meeting.
Followed by the lower ranked Maria, she proceeded past a line-up of applauding ballkids and military personnel and arrived on No. 1 Court to a warm reception.
When the match started, it was Maria who appeared the more nervous, with her signature slices not as finely tuned as usual.
Niemeier got a break at the beginning of the set and kept it to win 6-4 in 43 minutes. She got another break early in the second but double faults interrupted her momentum and Maria broke back immediately and then ended the next game with a remarkable lunge to volley a winner.
Down set point, Niemeier returned a lob with a tweener but Maria was waiting at the net to volley it away for a winner and 6-2.
In the decider, players alternated patches of unforced errors; Maria with groundstrokes and Niemeier with volleys and lobs. But these lapses contrasted with their brilliant passages.
In the end, Maria was just that little bit more brilliant as she ran around getting even the most difficult balls back over the net and took the set 7-5.
When it was over, Niemeier dealt well with her disappointment and entered into a long embrace with Maria at the net as the crowd cheered the exciting play it had witnessed.
Unfortunately, despite her run to the quarter finals, Niemeier’s ranking of 97 didn’t improve due to the WTA’s refusal to award ranking points at Wimbledon, in retaliation for the tournament’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players.
She did, however, more than double her previous career winnings of US$327,000 with her prize money of US$413,731. Her pay cheque included her Doubles second round effort with Andrea Petkovic, a partnership that began at the Bett1Open.
Perhaps more importantly, she gained confidence from proving what she is capable of when injury free, and on a surface where she was not rated by most pundits. In her words, “Wimbledon, I love you and I can’t wait to be back next year”.
Title photo by Corinne Dubreuil
Interviews with Jule Niemeier in Melbourne 2017 were conducted by WLM for Deutsche Tennis Zeitung