To some players, facing seven match points would be a daunting task. Tim Van Rijthoven, however, has confronted much worse.
The Dutchman, who saved seven match points on Monday and rallied from two sets down to stun Zhang Zhizhen at the US Open, is enjoying the best year of his career. But it has been far from easy for the 25-year-old to get to this point.
Going through the list of injuries Van Rijthoven has suffered since turning pro in 2015 takes almost as long as an interview itself.
“When I was 18, I had a golfer’s elbow. It hurt when I was hitting serves, forehand volleys and smashes, so I couldn’t play a match,” Van Rijthoven said. “It took me about a year to recover from that and that was my first year as a pro.”
Once Van Rijthoven returned to the court, he was able to compete for a year and a half, but his elbow still hurt “a lot”. At the end of the year, he fell on his wrist and needed surgery. That was another eight months out.
Again, the Dutchman was able to return to competition for a year, but then hurt both his groins and was unable to move to his left or right. Each time Van Rijthoven recovered physically, but he was never able to find his rhythm on the court. In February 2020, he underwent vein surgery on his right arm to deal with thrombosis, which occurs when a blood clot causes a blockage.
“I’ve had moments when I’ve thought about quitting the sport altogether and just going back to studying,” Van Rijthoven said. “Definitely not easy.”
It was tough for him to imagine a life without tennis. Van Rijthoven began golfing when he was very young, holding a club at the age of two. But tennis was in his blood.
“I think my first lessons were at five, six years old,” Van Rijthoven said. “My parents were both tennis teachers, so it was only normal for me to play tennis.
“Both my parents were in that life, so it kind of became my life. I never thought of it as really my job, but just part of my life.”
Sometimes it became hard for him to differentiate between his professional career and his personal life. His family and friends, especially his girlfriend, urged him to continue working hard and eventually the effort would reap rewards. According to Van Rijthoven, his biggest improvement came in his mind.
“For me it was really just turning a switch on in my head,” he said.
It all paid off for Van Rijthoven earlier this year during the grass-court season. In front of his home fans at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Dutchman lifted the trophy as a wild card ranked World No. 205.
In the final, he upset then-World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev to become the first man to defeat a World No. 1 or No. 2 in his first ATP Tour final in the Tour’s history (since 1990). Van Rijthoven backed it up by advancing to the fourth round at Wimbledon as a wild card on his Grand Slam debut. In the Round of 16, he tested eventual champion Novak Djokovic before losing to the Serbian in four sets.
Photo Credit: Libema Open
Van Rijthoven did not let the success of the moment get to his head, though. Although he recognised “how precious those matches were”, he said he “definitely [had] both feet on the ground”.
Just weeks later, Van Rijthoven went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. At No. 101 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, one place from checking off his major goal of cracking the Top 100, injury struck again. The Dutchman was hitting a serve at an ATP Challenger Tour event when he strained his back. “I couldn’t really move either side and was just stuck in one position,” Van Rijthoven said.
“I thought about ‘Not again’, yeah. I also feel like whenever I feel a small pain coming up, I’m very careful, so I want to get a picture taken of it and everything and just know what it is, because I’ve had all those injuries before.”
Van Rijthoven did not play a tournament between that moment and the US Open. He seemed destined for a first-round exit when he trailed Zhang by two sets and 1/5 in the third-set tie-break. But like he has throughout his career, the Dutchman persevered.
With the World No. 117’s sights set on the Top 100 — a mark he is projected to eclipse with an upset win in the second round against Casper Ruud — Van Rijthoven is ready to continue his surge.
“That’s one of the big goals for me and I was 101,” Van Rijthoven said. “That really hurts to be 101 and finish the career 101, so I don’t want to finish 101.”