August 12, 2022

WIMBLEDON, England — Tennis has had its share of unexpected stories in recent years. A qualifier named Emma Raducanu won the US 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 in the past month is not limited to the absurd – that is the definition of absurd. And the ridicule continued on Friday as van Rijthoven, the 205th ranked player in the world less than a month ago, contested a 16 final with top seed Novak Djokovic.

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

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

On June 7, he recorded his first victory in the main draw. Over the next five days he notched four more wins, including upsets of the tournament’s top three seeds – fourteenth-seeded Taylor Fritz, ninth-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime, and to top it all off in the final, he defeated current world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev.

He has since won three more matches, all at Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam tournament. He beat two seeds. He only lost one set, in a tiebreaker. Some players can take a year to win half a dozen matches on the ATP Tour. Van Rijthoven did it in four weeks.

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

When Basilashvili’s last shot came out, van Rijthoven calmly raised his arms and walked to the net to shake hands. He briefly cheered his racquet 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 started working with van Rijthoven six months ago. “Our first day here he had big eyes, but now he acts like he’s been here 10 years already.”

Laggards with triple-digit rankings have raised eyebrows recently at Grand Slam tournaments. Van Rijthoven’s compatriot Botic van de Zandschulp was ranked 117th heading into his run to the quarter-finals at the US Open last year. Aslan Karatsev of Russia had been in the tennis wilderness for years and was ranked 114th heading into his semi-final at the 2021 Australian Open.

“All it takes is a few wins against a great player and then your confidence goes up and you start to think you’re as good as those guys,” said Marc Lucero, who coaches Steve Johnson, the United States veteran pro. now ranked No. 93.

The grass also helps, said David Witt, a longtime trainer. Players rarely train there and they only attend for one month a year, making it something of an equalizer for those who are comfortable with the surface when playing against more established professionals who they may not be.

A watered-down draw missing the banned Russians, including Medvedev, doesn’t hurt either.

Still, van de Zandschulp and Karatsev had won high profile tour matches before they got hot on the big stage. Until early June, van Rijthoven was winless in ATP Tour main draw matches. How is it going ?

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

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

Additionally, unrelated to his elbow problem, he developed thrombosis in the arteries of his arm, which made his fingertips feel cold and numb. He had to undergo surgery to remove the blood clots.

The biggest problem, he said, was not physical but mental. He’s quite tall (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) and quite strong and quick, but when he missed easy shots or made bad decisions, he became sullen and embarrassed. He obsessed during games with what other people thought of his level of play, assuming it wasn’t good.

Earlier this year, frustrated that his chance at a professional career might slip away from him, he had an epiphany.

“I decided to accept my mistakes, grow up and become an adult,” he said as he headed to the first of more than a dozen TV interviews, a new part of his job as the time. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to be negative anymore.’ I’ll tell you, it’s not a one-day shift you do. It’s something you have to work on every day.”

He also started training with Sijsling, who works for the Dutch tennis federation, who continued to support van Rijthoven in his struggles. Sijsling told him he needed to stop playing defensively and use his power to play more aggressively and move up the pitch.

“You have to attack with power, otherwise it’s wasted,” said Sijsling. Sijsling also encouraged van Rijthoven, who likes to work hard but not for very long, to spend more time on the training ground. “I don’t think you can get to the top without working really hard,” he said.

On Sunday, van Rijthoven’s unbeaten status this spring will be put to the test against Djokovic, a 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 ahead of their showdown, which will most likely take place on center court, an atmosphere unlike anything van Rijthoven has experienced.

Djokovic scouting report: van Rijthoven is well suited to grass, he says. “Big serve, one-handed backhand, use the slice well. He is a versatile 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’ll enter the court with the same thought he’s tried for all year, whether in those backwater challenger tournaments or during last month on the ATP Tour. He will believe he can win.

“Essentially in every game I think I’m the best player,” he said, “although that might not always be the case.”