Tim Van Rijthoven was not supposed to be at Wimbledon. Until three weeks ago, according to every conceivable metric used to judge elite-level tennis, the 25-year-old was nowhere near the sport’s oldest and grandest stage. He had never won a senior ATP Tour-level match, and his solitary appearance was a first-round loss at the ATP 250 event in Winston Salem back in 2016: the result of a Lucky Loser entry to the main draw thanks to a last-minute withdrawal.
Van Rijthoven, the biggest underdog story of the Championships this year, will now take on three-time defending champion and arguably the greatest player of all time, Novak Djokovic, in the fourth round at SW19 on Sunday.
He was handed a last-minute wildcard to the main draw after his heroics at the Libema Open last month, where he went on to win his first-tour level match and the title one week later. He has been in equally inspiring form in London this week, taking down 15th seed Reilly Opelka and 22nd seed Nikoloz Basilashivili.
Dutch TV channel RTL reported that it was former player Raemon Sluiter who urged Van Rijthoven’s coach Igor Sijsling to request Wimbledon for a wild card which he did, and was granted.
Sluiter would also say that Van Rijthoven’s story reminded him of the comic ‘De Wondersloffen van Sjakie’. It was the Dutch version of the popular British comic Billy’s Boots, where the main character Billy finds special boots that magically turns him into a fabulous football player when he wears them. Only, Van Rijthoven has achieved the astounding transformation without any boots, but the fairytale-ish ambience does stand out.
Fairytale home title
As a native of the Netherlands, Van Rijthoven was handed a main draw wildcard at the ATP 250 event in ‘s-Hertogenbosch last week. The Dutchman went on to lift the title one week later, but there was precious little luck involved.
After he was handed an extremely difficult draw, the 25-year-old ground out results throughout the week with some excellent grasscourt tennis and impressive control over his nerves. He ousted Mathew Ebden in two tiebreakers, before overturning a one-set deficit against Indian Wells champion and tournament third seed Taylor Fritz.
Second seed Felix Auger-Aliassime was the first top 10 player he defeated during the week, against whom he needed to edge a tight deciding-set tiebreak in the semifinal. Van Rijthoven went on to defeat top seed and World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in a 6-4, 6-1 drubbing.
“Amazing week. (You) destroyed the No. 2 (at the time) in the world in straight sets in the final, so I think it must be a good feeling!” Medvedev said during his on-court speech.
First ATP Tour win ✅
First top 10 win ✅
First ATP Final ✅
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) June 11, 2022
Van Rijthoven’s all-court playing style is a bonus on grass, but his game is far from one-dimensional. He is an all-court player with good court coverage and hits the ball cleanly. His 6’2” frame also ensures a largely reliable serve. But it is his return of serve that often gives him the edge.
Against Medvedev, a player whose serve hardly lets him down, he was able to fashion 10 break-point opportunities against the Russian. Against the big-serving Opelka in the second round at Wimbledon, he amassed six.
Although he was only able to break the American’s serve once, Van Rijthoven saved all five break points on his own serve and stayed toe-to-toe with his opponent’s big game, showing impressive mental strength to eventually prevail 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(7), 7-6(4) – a vintage grasscourt score line if there ever was one.
Djokovic, fresh off a thumping win against compatriot Miomir Kecmanovic, will be wary of any lapses on his serve on Sunday, especially considering the shot has not been tested much yet.
Mental, physical problems after impressive juniors
After the ‘s-Hertogenbosch final, Medvedev revealed how he remembered playing Van Rijthoven during his junior years. “An amazing match today. Keep it going. I remember you from juniors, you have the talent so now you need to make more matches like this and more tournaments like this,” the Russian said.
A contemporary of both Fritz and Medvedev, Van Rijthoven actually had quite a promising juniors career. He ended 2014 with a juniors ranking of World No. 24, and his last appearance at the All England Club saw him win a quarterfinal over current World No. 8 Andrey Rublev, who was the top-ranked junior player at the time.
Following his senior debut in 2016 though, the physical and mental challenges that go with a full-time tennis career took their toll. Injuries plagued his progress, and he began feeling the pressure. “A lot was expected of me in the past,” he was quoted as saying by the Tennis Channel. “I couldn’t do that then. I want to make it happen for myself now. I’ve matured in that regard. I enjoy the job more these days.”
Beyond a certain age, the summit of elite-level sports begins to slip away from once-promising athletes. In that regard, Van Rijthoven, now 8 matches unbeaten in three weeks, has kept the fairytale going and made good of his opportunity at Wimbledon.
While he is unfortunate not to get the 180 ranking points he ordinarily would have at SW19, a well-earned challenge against one of the game’s all-time greats, on its most famous stage, awaits the 25-year-old.