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Tennis gets another fairy tale in Tim van Rijthoven, perhaps the craziest yet

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WIMBLEDON, England — Tennis has had its share of stories that come out of nowhere in recent years. A qualifier named Emma Raducanu won the US Open last September. Sport is deeper than ever.

But even by those standards, what Tim van Rijthoven of the Netherlands has accomplished over the last month doesn’t just border on absurd, it’s the definition of absurd. And the ridiculousness continued on Friday when van Rijthoven, the 205th-ranked player in the world less than a month ago, faced himself in the round of 16 against top seed Novak Djokovic.

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

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

On June 7, he recorded his first main draw win of the tour. Over the next five days, he picked up four more wins, including upsets of the top three seeds in the tournament: Taylor Fritz, 14th, Felix Auger-Aliassime, 9th, and to top it off in the final, he beat the current No. world, Daniel Medvedev.

Since then he has won three more matches, all at Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam tournament. He has beaten two top seeds. He has only lost one set, in a tiebreak. Some players can take a year to win half a 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 on Friday after beating No. 22 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. Van Rijthoven started shortly after 11 a.m. He played like someone with a girlfriend waiting for him for lunch, and he finished Basilashvili in 102 minutes.

As Basilashvili’s last shot came out, van Rijthoven calmly raised his arms and walked 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 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.”

Late risers with triple-digit rankings have had some amazing streaks in Grand Slam tournaments of late. Van Rijthoven’s compatriot Botic van de Zandschulp was ranked 117th before reaching the quarter-finals at the US Open last year. Aslan Karatsev of Russia had been in the nature of tennis for years and was ranked 114th before his semi-final run at the Australian Open 2021.

“All it takes is a couple of wins against a great player, and then your confidence builds and you start to think you’re as good as these guys,” said Marc Lucero, who trains Steve Johnson, the veteran United States pro. Joined. he is now ranked 93rd.

Grass helps, too, said David Witt, a longtime coach. Players rarely practice on it, competing on it for only one month each year, making it an equalizer for those who are comfortable with the surface when playing against more established professionals who may not be.

A diluted draw without the banned Russians, including Medvedev, doesn’t hurt either.

Still, van de Zandschulp and Karatsev had both won top-level tour matches before warming up on the big stage. As of early June, van Rijthoven did not win 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 battled injuries, some tennis-related and one just bad luck, for three years. He underwent 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, unrelated to his elbow problem, he developed a thrombosis in the arteries in his arm, causing the tips of his fingers to become cold and numb. He had to undergo surgery to remove blood clots.

The biggest problem, he said, was not physical but mental. He’s big enough (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) and strong enough and fast enough, but when he missed easy shots or made poor decisions, he was sullen and embarrassed. He obsessed during matches with what other people thought about his level of play, assuming he was no good.

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

“I decided that 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 said to myself, ‘I’m not going to be negative anymore.’ I’ll tell you, it’s not a one-day shift you’re doing. It’s something you have to work on every day.”

He also began training with Sijsling, who works for the Dutch tennis federation, who continued to support van Rijthoven through his difficulties. Sijsling told him that he needed to stop playing defense and use his power to play more aggressively and move up the court.

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

On Sunday, van Rijthoven’s undefeated status this spring will have its toughest 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 his matchup, which will 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 said. “Big serve, one-handed backhand, he uses the cut well. He is a versatile player. He can play fast; he can also stay in the rally and get to the net.”

Djokovic has 20 Grand Slam singles titles, but van Rijthoven said he would enter the court with the same mindset he has tried to have all year, whether it be in those challenger tournaments or during the last month on the ATP Tour. He will believe that he can win.

“It’s basically going into every game thinking I’m the best player,” he said, “although that may not always be the case.”

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