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Exclusive: ‘Mentality is the most important thing’ – Richard Krajicek on surprise champion Tim van Rijthoven and more

In an exclusive chat, the former Wimbledon champion casts his eye over the field for the grass-court Slam

Richard Krajicek and Tim van Rijthoven Richard Krajicek and Tim van Rijthoven (© Panoramic / SIPA)

Former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek is heading to England this week. Always a fan of grass courts, the Dutchman will be one of the headline attractions at an exhibition in Yorkshire – so in an exclusive chat with Tennis Majors, the 51-year-old talks about grass-court tennis, his predictions for SW19, and the achievements of compatriot Tim van Rijthoven.

You’re coming to England to play at the Berry's Tennis exhibition. It looks like a lot of fun to be playing tennis there, with a castle as a backdrop.

Yeah, I’ve been there twice or three times already and I know it well. And I have to say it’s really nice, really beautiful but always one more detail is important – sunshine. I’ve been there when it’s been raining but I’ve also been there when there’s sunshine, and that’s unbelievable – beautiful. We have a lot of fun.

We have the grass-court season under way now, and we are seeing some very interesting news about the Wimbledon draw, with Serena coming back. For once it looks like the men’s draw might be more open than the women’s…

Yeah, the men’s draw, of course there’s Novak. Normally Roger, like, OK, he’s going to at least make the semi-final and now he’s not there. Rafa – it’s a nice thing now that they have grass courts in Mallorca so he can practise there, so let’s see. It’s unlikely [that he’ll win] because his foot is not good. But he still is in contention to win all [Grand Slams] for one year, which is difficult, but then, you never know.

I have to ask you about a player that you know well, who impressed the world last week en route to winning 's-Hertogenbosch, Tim van Rijthoven.

Amazing. I mean, he’s always been a very talented player. There were two things that made it take so long for him to achieve this breakthrough – actually now he’s 25. Now, one was a lot of injuries. And also, sometimes he was not…yeah, I don’t know what the reason was, but sometimes he felt he was mentally not the toughest player on the court.

Tim Van Rijthoven 's-Hertogenbosch
Tim Van Rijthoven after winning ‘s-Hertogenbosch

But what he showed this week, actually already showed it the last six to nine months, he’s really improved a lot. He showed in his results in Challengers, and I also talked to coaches that he works with and they all said, ‘Tim, yeah, he’s matured and turned the page, and he’s really ready to go into the top 200,’ which he did. He made that big leap, and especially when he beat Taylor Fritz, that was a tough match, and also against Felix [Auger-Aliassime] in the semi-final, with a tiebreaker in the third set – I mean, those were matches that a year ago, or longer ago, he would have probably lost them, so he’s grown a lot in the last 12 months. Everybody has their career in their own pace, and it looked like he was a huge talent and maybe at 18 he would achieve this, but he needs more time, and maybe now he’s ready to make the push for [the top] 150, maybe even more.

As a coach, is that a hard thing for you to coach players with – the whole mental attitude?

Yes, I worked with him for a year about three years ago. I was his coach, and we worked with that I always put the emphasis on staying level as much as possible during the match. And so after you lose the first set, maybe close, you don’t lose focus and then before you know it, you’re 3-0 down in the second already. So you just put a little bit more emphasis on it – not too much, because it becomes too much of a thing. But yeah, in general, we tried to always try to talk a little bit about that, and always emphasise that if he played a good match, and I felt that he played good tennis, you tell him, but also when I thought OK, you fought well, mentality was good, because that makes the big difference. I, and a lot of people in tennis knew that knew him, knew he was a great player, very talented. But yeah, you also always had the feeling like can he, mentally? Now he finally showed it.

If you look at Rafa, he’s a very good player, a great player, but without the mentality he would not have achieved half of what he has achieved. Same with Novak.

Richard Krajicek

It’s the most important thing. I mean, if you look at Rafa, he’s a very good player, a great player, but without the mentality he would not have achieved half of what he has achieved. Same with Novak. It’s the most important thing – and the willingness to work hard, but I have to say Tim always had that, he’s a very hard worker. But how do you cope on the court with a few setbacks? There’s never a match where everything goes the way you want it to go, where you win every point. There’s always ups and downs, and how do you deal with it? You have to try to be the best version of yourself. So I think that’s what you always try to tell a player, like look at the mentally tough players, understand that sometimes they have from within naturally this ability also, but try to be the toughest strongest player that you can be.

I saw that Iga Swiatek said something quite similar during the French Open – that she realised a few months ago, she didn't have to play every point perfectly, she just had to do everything well enough. That's what started her winning streak.

She’s unbelievable – big game and, yeah, the mentality is important. It decides a lot of matches. Of course you have to be able to play but then when it’s really close, it’s always small things that make the difference. How do you handle the bad bounces you get – literally but also figuratively? During the match, there’s always little unexpected setbacks or disappointments. If you keep lingering in it then it’s going to harm you, even beyond that point. And it’s easier said than done – I have been a player and also sometimes I lingered too long in bad points or missed opportunities, but that’s a lot of times the difference between the very top and the people below it.

Finally, will you be going to Wimbledon this year?

I’m invited to go in the Royal Box for the Sunday final. I’m looking forward to that. I was actually invited last year, because last year was 25 years since I won Wimbledon, so that was a very nice reward. But then I would have had to be in six days of quarantine to come to England and then coming back another six days, so it was not possible.  So now this year my wife and I are going and looking forward to it!

Richard Krajicek was speaking ahead of playing at the 2022 Berry’s Tennis Classic event, held at Hazlewood Castle, Leeds, from June 22-24.

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