Even knowing what an unusual Wimbledon this has been, what with so many unexpected results and new faces popping up, and so few top seeds — and major champions — remaining, surely Novak Djokovic would not lose to a wild-card entry making his Grand Slam debut, would he?
If it did not quite seem plausible, it did at least become vaguely possible a tad past 9:30 p.m. on Sunday night under the closed roof at Centre Court, when 25-year-old Dutchman Tim van Rijthoven — ranking: 104th; lifetime tour-level victories: eight, all in the past month — had the temerity to smack a 133 mph ace past Djokovic and tie their fourth-round match at a set apiece.
All of nine minutes later, the time it took Djokovic to grab 12 of the next 15 points, and the next three games, both plausibility and possibility took a hike. Soon enough, the third set was his, and not much later, so was the fourth, and the match, a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 result that gave the tournament's No. 1 seed a 25th consecutive grass-court victory at the All England Club and a place in his 13th Wimbledon quarterfinal.
“Novak did his Novak thing,” van Rijthoven said, “and played very, very well. He had all the answers.”
Beforehand, van Rijthoven had said: “I’ll go into that match thinking I can win.” Might have still had that sense Sunday evening. If only briefly.
Eventually, the only true question was whether Djokovic would wrap this one up in time, because there is an 11 p.m. curfew. Running up against that would have required them to resume Monday.
“Whew. I am lucky,” Djokovic said after closing the deal with 20 minutes to spare. “It's never really pleasant if you can't finish the match in the same day. Glad I did.”
They did not begin playing until 8 p.m., in part due to a delay of roughly an hour at the start of this special afternoon — the first time in history the tournament's middle Sunday held scheduled play — while a ceremony was held to honor the 100 years of Centre Court.
Djokovic, who questioned after his victory why matches generally begin so late in the main stadium, was among the many past champions who took part, joking to the crowd when it was his turn to speak, “Gosh, I feel more nervous than when I’m playing.”
If he was, indeed, jittery at all at a set apiece many hours later against van Rijthoven, it certainly did not show. Didn't matter that van Rijthoven kept cranking out huge serves, to the tune of 20 aces, including a pair on second serves. Didn't matter just how big the cuts were that van Rijthoven took with his forehands. Didn't matter that the spectators, who love an underdog, were getting louder and louder as the second set came to a close. Didn't matter that Djokovic stumbled behind what he called a "slippery" baseline twice, landing first on his backside, later on his left knee and stomach.
“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,” Djokovic said. “It took me a little bit of time to get used to his pace.”
Djokovic, a 35-year-old from Serbia, calibrated his best-in-the-game returns, got his groundstrokes in fine form — finishing with just 19 unforced errors, compared to 29 winners — and was in complete control, a step closer to all manner of important numbers. His pursuit of a fourth consecutive, and seventh overall, title at Wimbledon, not to mention a 21st major championship, will continue Tuesday against No. 10 seed Jannik Sinner of Italy.
Sinner reached his first quarterfinal at the All England Club by eliminating No. 5 Carlos Alcaraz 6-1, 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-3 earlier.
The other quarterfinal on their half of the bracket will be No. 9 Cam Norrie of Britain against unseeded David Goffin of Belgium. They each advanced by beating Americans: Norrie beat No. 30 Tommy Paul 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 to get to his first major quarterfinal, and Goffin edged No. 23 Frances Tiafoe 7-6 (3), 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 over more than 4 1/2 hours.
The rest of the fourth round is Monday, and the only men left in the field who ever have participated in a Grand Slam final are Djokovic and 22-time major champion Rafael Nadal. They are also the only men still around ranked in the top 10.
It's a similarly unfamiliar collection of players chasing the women's championship, with just one who has appeared in a Grand Slam final (two-time major title winner Simona Halep, who plays Monday) and just two who were among the top 15 seeds at Wimbledon (No. 3 Ons Jabeur and No. 4 Paula Badosa, who plays Monday).
Jabeur made it to the quarterfinals at the All England Club for the second year in a row with a 7-6 (9), 6-4 victory against No. 24 Elise Mertens of Belgium. The other women moving on Sunday are unseeded and in unfamiliar territory, never having been in any major quarterfinal.
Jabeur next plays Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic, while Tatjana Maria, 34, and Jule Niemeier, 22, will meet in an all-German quarterfinal.
Bouzkova topped Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-2, Maria defeated 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 5-7, 7-5, 7-5 after erasing two match points, and Niemeier beat Heather Watson 6-2, 6-4.
“There’s no reason ... not to keep this going," said Bouzkova, who pulled out of the French Open in May after testing positive for COVID-19 before her second-round match. "Kind of believing in myself right now.”
There's been a lot of that going around at the grass-court Grand Slam tournament. Djokovic put an end to such thoughts for van Rijthoven.