Tennis’s most impossibly glorious streak is somehow still gathering pace. Three weeks ago, 25-year-old Tim van Rijthoven had never won a match on the main ATP tour and was ranked 205 in the world. Now, after rattling off an extraordinary eight-match winning run – including five victories over players in the top 30 – he will face Novak Djokovic in the last 16 of Wimbledon on Sunday. Most likely on Centre Court. No, Tim, you’re not dreaming. Tennis’s Cinderella Man really is coming to the ball.
If William Goldman had pitched something so ridiculous he would have been laughed out of Hollywood. Yet the way Van Rijthoven took out the 22nd seed Nikoloz Basilashvili with a painless, impressive 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 third-round victory suggested he has enough heft – and deft – to give even Djokovic something to think about.
“From the outside it obviously looks like a fairytale because it came out of nowhere,” Van Rijthoven said afterwards, as he tried to sum up what has happened to him in the past three weeks. “It’s basically a sum-up of a lot of hard work, a lot of belief, and eventually very positive vibes going into matches.”
The vibes started when he was given a wildcard to the ‘s-Hertogenbosch tournament in June . It quickly proved to be the tennis equivalent of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. After winning his opening two matches he then blasted past three players in the top 15 – Félix Auger-Aliassime, Taylor Fritz and Daniil Medvedev – to win his first ATP title.
Soon after, Wimbledon offered him a main draw wildcard and the momentum has continued with him thumping the 15th seed Reilly Opelka in four sets and now Basilashvili with the efficiency of an old pro.
This latest win was again earned off the back of his muscular serve, which whizzed past Basilashvili at an astonishing average speed of 124.6mph – faster even than John Isner’s average against Andy Murray. But a punishing forehand, and a single-handed backhand so classical it could have been taught in ancient Athens, also played their part too. “The serve is working fantastic,” said Van Rijthoven. “I’ve only been broken the last eight matches a couple times. I like to play aggressive, like to play a lot of forehands, and I also like to use my slice. So grass really suits my game.”
As yet another ace found its mark, cries of “C’mon Tim” even rang around Wimbledon for the first time in 15 years. But even Henman in his prime never had this sort of power.
However Basilashvili was complicit in his demise too. The Georgian has made over $8m in prize money, despite having never reached a grand slam quarter-final, because he is a ball-basher who sometimes runs incredibly hot. This, however, was one of his cold days as he smacked 34 unforced errors – to just 13 winners.
After the Dutchman broke at 4-4 in the first there only ever looked like being one winner. And from then it proved to be largely a rollover for Van Rijthoven, who became only the 11th wildcard to reach the last 16 of Wimbledon in the open era. “I think he’s a very streaky player,” said Van Rijthoven. “Can play very well at times, can also make some mistakes at times. For me it was just about keeping the ball in play, and give him a chance to miss basically.”
So where has this overnight success come from? As the watching Dutch journalists pointed out, Van Rijthoven has always had talent. In 2014 he made it to the quarter-finals of the boys’ singles at Wimbledon before turning professional the following year. But his progress since has been interrupted by three serious injuries – and an understandable loss of confidence.
“It’s been a long one,” he said. “I’ve had my ups and downs, injuries here and there. They took about three years. There were three major injuries. I had a wrist surgery. I had an artery surgery. And I had a golfer’s elbow, which took nine months to heal. I got it while playing tennis. I also struggled mentally. I’m just happy to be in the place I am right now.”
Next up he will play Djokovic – and instead of playing in front of a few hundred people as he did on Court 12 on Friday, it could be closer to 12,000. Not that he sounds overly worried. “Before the tournament started, it was a dream for me to play Djokovic,” he said. “To have that chance and to maybe even play on Centre Court is beautiful and magical.”
And he is not discounting the dream continuing, either. “I go into every match thinking I can win,” he said. “Against Djokovic I’ll go into that match thinking the same.
“I’m just riding the wave right now, see where it ends.” And who can blame him?