Tennis Gets Another Fairy Tale, Maybe the Craziest One Yet

WIMBLEDON, England — Tennis has had its share of come-out-of-nowhere stories in recent years. A qualifier named Emma Raducanu won the U.S. Open last September. The sport is as deep as it has ever been.

But even by those standards, what Tim van Rijthoven of the Netherlands has accomplished during the last month does not just border on the absurd — it is the definition of absurd. And the ludicrousness continued on Friday as van Rijthoven, the 205th-ranked player in the world less than a month ago, played himself into a final-16 showdown with the top-seeded Novak Djokovic.

Ah, but that is just the beginning, because van Rijthoven’s journey is even more ridiculous than that.

On June 6, van Rijthoven, an injury-prone 25-year-old, and Homer Simpson had the same number of wins in the main draw of ATP Tour events. That would be zero. Unlike Simpson, though, van Rijthoven received a wild-card entry into the Libema Open, a low-level grass-court tournament in the Netherlands.

On June 7, he recorded his first main-draw tour win. During the next five days, he reeled off four more wins, including upsets of the top three seeds in the tournament — the fourteenth-ranked Taylor Fritz, the 9th-ranked Felix Auger-Aliassime, and to cap it off in the finals, he drubbed the current world No. 1, Daniil Medvedev.

He has since won three more matches, all at Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam tournament. He has beaten two seeded players. He has dropped just one set, in a tiebreaker. Some players can take a year to win a half-dozen matches on the ATP Tour. Van Rijthoven has done it in four weeks.

“From the outside, it obviously looks like a fairy tale,” he said Friday after he beat the No. 22 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. Van Rijthoven began just after 11 a.m. He played like someone with a girlfriend waiting to meet him for lunch, finishing Basilashvili off in 102 minutes.

When Basilashvili’s last shot sailed out, van Rijthoven calmly raised his arms and strolled to the net to shake hands. He briefly clapped his racket to the crowd, packed his bag and left. Just another day at the office.

“Very difficult to explain,” said his coach, Igor Sijsling, who was still playing tournaments himself last year and only began working with van Rijthoven six months ago. “Our first day here, he had big eyes, but now he’s acting like he’s been here 10 years already.”

Late bloomers with triple-digit rankings have had some eyebrow-raising runs at Grand Slam tournaments of late. Van Rijthoven’s countryman Botic van de Zandschulp was ranked 117th before his run to the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open last year. Aslan Karatsev of Russia had been in the tennis wilderness for years and was ranked 114th ahead of his semifinal run at the 2021 Australian Open.

“All it takes is a couple of wins against a big player, and then your confidence goes up and you start thinking you’re as good as these guys,” said Marc Lucero, who coaches Steve Johnson, the veteran pro from the United States now ranked No. 93.

The grass also helps, said David Witt, a longtime coach. Players rarely practice on it, and they compete on it for just one month each year, making it something of an equalizer for those who are comfortable with the surface when they play against more established professionals who may not be.

A watered-down draw missing the barred Russians, including Medvedev, does not hurt either.

Still, van de Zandschulp and Karatsev had won top-level tour matches before getting hot on the big stage. Until early June, van Rijthoven was winless in ATP Tour main-draw matches. How is this happening?

He was promising enough as a teenager to train at the IMG Academy in Florida in 2015 and said he has struggled with injuries, some tennis-related and one that was just bad luck, for three years. He had surgery on his wrist and battled inflammation of the tendons on the inner, or medial, side of his elbow.

“They call it golfer’s elbow, but I got it playing tennis,” he said Friday. (Tennis elbow is inflammation of the tendons on the outer, or lateral, side.)

Also, completely unrelated to his elbow problem, he developed thrombosis in the arteries of his arm, which caused the tips of his fingers to become cold and numb. He had to have surgery to remove the blood clots.

The biggest problem, he said, was not physical but mental. He is plenty big (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) and strong and fast enough, but when he missed easy shots or made bad decisions he became sullen and embarrassed. He would obsess during matches about what other people were thinking about his level of play, assuming it was not good.

Earlier this year, frustrated that his chance at a professional career might be slipping away, he had an epiphany.

“I decided I was going to accept my mistakes and grow up and become an adult,” he said as he walked to the first of more than a dozen television interviews, a new part of his schedule. “I told myself, ‘I’m not going to be negative anymore.’ I will tell you that is not a one-day shift that you make. It’s something you have to work on every day.”

He has also started training with Sijsling, who works for the Dutch tennis federation, which had continued to support van Rijthoven through his struggles. Sijsling told him that he needed to stop playing defensively and use his power to play more aggressively and push forward into the court.

“You have to attack with power or else it’s wasted,” Sijsling said. Sijsling has also encouraged van Rijthoven, who likes to work intensely but not for very long, to put in more time on the practice court. “I don’t think you can get to the top without working very hard,” he said.

On Sunday, van Rijthoven’s undefeated status this spring will get its stiffest test against Djokovic, the six-time singles champion here and winner of the last three Wimbledon titles. Djokovic said he watched some of van Rijthoven’s matches in recent days in anticipation of their showdown, which will most likely take place on Centre Court, an atmosphere unlike anything van Rijthoven has experienced.

Djokovic’s scouting report: van Rijthoven is well suited to the grass, he said. “Big serve, one-handed backhand, uses the slice well. He’s an all-around player. He can play fast; he can also stay in the rally and come to the net.”

Djokovic has 20 Grand Slam singles titles, but van Rijthoven said he would walk onto the court with the same thought he has tried to have all year, whether in those backwater challenger tournaments or during the past month on the ATP Tour. He will believe he can win.

“It’s basically going into every match thinking I’m the better player,” he said, “even though it’s maybe not always the case.”

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