At Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic plays a wild card on a dream run

Tim van Rijthoven
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A month ago, Tim van Rijthoven was six years removed from his one and only ATP main draw tournament match. On Sunday, he will play Novak Djokovic in the fourth round of Wimbledon, likely on the most famous court in tennis.

“From the outside, it obviously looks like a fairy tale,” van Rijthoven said Friday after knocking off a second consecutive seeded player, No. 22 Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

Djokovic called van Rijthoven “one of the talks of the tournament.”

“There is a challenge when you’re facing someone for the first time, that someone obviously has not much to lose,” Djokovic said. “He’s on his dream run.”

WIMBLEDON DRAWS: Women | Men

Van Rijthoven, now 25, was an accomplished junior player, even reaching the 2014 Wimbledon boys’ quarterfinals. But his growth as a pro was stunted by three years of injuries, including artery or vein surgery, wrist surgery and what he called golfer’s elbow.

“I got it while playing tennis,” he said.

Van Rijthoven also dealt with mental struggles. He still managed to play a lot of tennis, though not many people saw it. In August 2016, he made his ATP Tour-level main draw debut, losing in the first round of a lower-level tournament.

Since, he played nearly 200 matches on the minor-league Challenger and ITF circuits, wielding his racket in Bahrain, Orlando, India, Lexington and Ludwigshafen, Germany.

But he didn’t break back into the big leagues, another ATP main draw, until getting a wild card into last month’s grass-court Libema Open while ranked 205th. It probably helped that van Rijthoven is Dutch and the tournament was in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands.

Van Rijthoven made the most of the opportunity, knocking out No. 3 seed Taylor Fritz, No. 2 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and No. 1 seed Daniil Medvedev en route to one of the unlikeliest titles in ATP history.

That result earned him a wild card invitation into Wimbledon. Van Rijthoven hasn’t played here since that 2014 junior run and had not played anywhere on grass at the senior level until May. He tried and failed to qualify into the Australian Open and French Open earlier this year.

This week, he credited his success to his serve more than anything else. On grass more than any other surface, a serve can power a player deep into tournaments.

He’s dropped just three service games among three matches going into the showdown with Djokovic. He has 53 aces, which will likely put him among the top half of the 16 men who reach the second week.

“It’s basically a sum up of a lot of hard work, a lot of belief, and eventually very positive vibes just going into matches and going into practices,” he said.

His career prize money before this tournament was $303,889. By making the fourth round, he’s guaranteed about $229,000.

He is the first men’s wild card to make it this far at Wimbledon since Denis Kudla in 2015. Now, he will try to become the first man to beat Djokovic at Wimbledon since 2017.

“Before the tournament started, it was a dream for me to play him,” van Rijthoven said. “So to be able to have that chance and to maybe even play on Centre Court or Court 1 is beautiful and magical.

“I’m just kind of riding the wave right now, see where it ends.”

Also Friday, 37-year-old American John Isner broke the record for most career aces, passing Croatian Ivo Karlovic, who recorded 13,728, in a three-set loss to Jannik Sinner.

The 30-year-old Brit Heather Watson made her first Grand Slam fourth round in her 43rd career Grand Slam main draw. She’ll play fellow unseeded player Jule Niemeier of Germany for a place in the quarterfinals. Recently retired Jo Konta is the only British woman to make the Wimbledon quarters since 1985.

German Tatjana Maria, a 34-year-old mother of two, upset No. 5 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece to reach the fourth round of a Slam for the first time in her 35th try.

Frances Tiafoe and Tommy Paul reached the fourth round and could be joined there by more Americans. Eight U.S. men reached the third round, the most at any Grand Slam since the 1996 U.S. Open.

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