Top seed Novak Djokovic raised his level to put an end to the fairytale run of Dutch wildcard Tim van Rijthoven during a battling 6-2 4-6 6-1 6-2 victory on Sunday and keep his Wimbledon title defence on track.
Chasing a fourth straight Wimbledon crown and seventh overall at the grasscourt major, Djokovic is now unbeaten on the manicured lawns of the All England Club since retiring due to an elbow injury against Tomas Berdych in the 2017 quarter-finals.
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Djokovic will play Italian 10th seed Jannik Sinner for a place in Friday’s semi-finals after the 20-year-old ousted fifth-seeded Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz in the previous contest on Centre Court.
Van Rijthoven was ranked 205th in the world last month and had not even won a Challenger Tour title when he triumphed at the ATP 250 grasscourt event in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, defeating world number one Daniil Medvedev 6-4 6-1 in the final.
“Very tough. I mean, I have never faced him before and he’s kind of a new face on the tour,” Djokovic said standing on the same lawn that he graced a few hours earlier as part of a parade of former champions to celebrate Centre Court’s 100 years.
“He was on a streak on this surface and I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy with that serve and a lot of talent, great touch, powerful forehand, he can do a lot of damage. It took me a little bit of time to get used to his pace.”
Djokovic broke the Dutchman at the first opportunity but was soon forced to dig deep on his own serve when van Rijthoven set up two break point chances.
But the Serbian saved both and let out a huge roar that sounded even louder with the roof closed due to the lateness of the match.
Van Rijthoven missed one more chance on Djokovic’s serve in the seventh game and instead it was the top seed who got a second break to bag the set with an exquisite backhand down the line.
The 25-year-old Van Rijthoven, who said it was his dream before the tournament to play Djokovic, would not be beaten easily though.
He started putting Djokovic under pressure with his heavy forehand and finally managed to crack his opponent’s serve in the seventh game with cries of “Come on Tim” reverberating in the stands.
The Dutch, who rates his delivery as his greatest weapon, saved four break points while serving for the second set at 5-4 before slamming down two consecutive aces to level the contest at one set apiece.
With less than 90 minutes left for an impending curfew at 11 pm local time, many would have wondered if the match was headed for a Monday finish. But Djokovic had other ideas.
He slipped a few times on important points during the first two sets as he played a few metres behind the baseline to allow himself more time against the hard-hitting Van Rijthoven.
After losing the second set he decided to change tactics and pumped up his aggression.
The 35-year-old showed why he has won 25 consecutive matches on grass and broke his opponent’s serve twice to completely shut out the momentum the Dutchman had gained.
Djokovic got a break early in the fourth and let out roars of “come on” with his fists clenched, while a second break in the seventh game put the world number three firmly in control.
The 20-times major champion then converted his first match point with a forehand winner — his 28th of the evening — to keep his title defence rolling on grass.
“Conditions under the roof played a little bit different, a bit slippery. It takes a bit of time or a bit of adjustment but overall I closed out the match well,” said Djokovic, claiming he was unaware of the approaching curfew.
“I’m lucky. It’s never really pleasant if you can’t finish the match the same day. Glad I did.”