Wimbledon 2017: Gilles Muller out-fought Rafael Nadal to clinch five-set thriller

When Gilles Muller was asked how he felt immediately after beating Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 in four hours and 47 minutes, all he could offer was, “tired.”

He had been through the most rigorous test in his 17-year career, and he’d emerged triumphant. Defeating Nadal is one thing, out-competing him quite another. The Spaniard specialises in breaking down opponents, physically and emotionally, but Muller refused to bow down to that pressure. He had seen Nadal battle back from two sets down, and save four match points on his serve. On the fifth match-point, after a tentative few shots, Nadal sent a forehand long.

Rafael Nadal (L) reacts after losing to Gilles Muller at Wimbledon. AFP

Rafael Nadal (L) reacts after losing to Gilles Muller at Wimbledon. AFP

The ultimate big-match player of the present generation had cracked under the seemingly ice-cool examination of Muller. The fourth-round defeat means Nadal, a two-time champion at Wimbledon, has now gone six years in a row without making it to the quarter-finals of the grasscourt Slam, after finishing runner-up to Novak Djokovic in 2011.

Muller had once previously beaten Nadal at Wimbledon: in the second round in 2005. It was Muller’s maiden outing at SW19 and he had serve-and-volleyed confidently to bring Nadal, then 19 and a newly-minted French Open champion, back to grassy earth. But that was a lifetime ago. Nadal was, just last month, crowned the French Open champion the 10th time and has been on a roll since yet another re-start at the beginning of the year. He had looked like he could take another stab at Wimbledon this time, coming through the first three rounds unscathed.

In contrast, the 6’4 Muller’s conventional game has brought him little rewards on the tour. He had been taken the distance by other Nadal-conquerer, Lukas Rosol, in the second round, when Muller won the fifth set 9-7. Since his 2005 win, the left-handed Muller has gone 0-18 in head-to-head against the ‘Big Four’. The only other time, before Monday, that he made a Slam quarter-finals was in 2008 at the US Open.

At 34 though, the lefty from Luxembourg is enjoying his best year on the circuit since turning pro in 2001. Having not won a single title in his first 16 years, Muller has claimed two this year. He won his maiden ATP title in Sydney in January. The second came at S-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, which is one of the grass court tournaments in the run up to Wimbledon. He is currently at a career high ranking of 26, and with Wimbledon considering past form as one of the markers, as opposed to just world rankings at other Slams, gave him an improved seeding of 16.

“I think the main reason (for success this year) is that I've been able to play full seasons for the past three or four years, which I wasn't able to do before because I had many injuries,” Muller explained on Monday evening. “The last injury I had was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I had problems with my elbow, I wasn't able to touch a racquet. I was able to work out physically and I got myself into my best shape ever. Since coming back in 2014, I'm able to play full seasons without any breaks and have a lot of confidence in my body now.”

That confidence served him well against the steel will of Nadal.

The man from Luxembourg started strong, using his power serves to great effect. Nadal was able to win only six points on his serve in the opening set, and 10 in the second, as Muller not only used pace but kept the Spaniard guessing with his placement. The 34-year-old attacked the net with a rare fluency. He did not let Nadal get into any sort of rhythm and after about an hour and quarter had taken a two-set lead, much to the surprise of the Court 1 crowd.

But when the match restarted in the third set, Nadal came out bouncing. Therein lies the genius of Nadal. His aggressive body language, which might have had you believe that he was the one holding a two-set lead, makes for an excellent armour. It echoes the belief that he won’t be beaten. He played a strong service game, and celebrated each point with a fist pump, that punched skywards as he rose in the air. Nadal was back; he would have you think that.

A sense of reluctance crept into Muller’s game, he was second-guessing, willing rather than working to put a lid on Nadal’s buoyancy. The Spaniard, meanwhile, took a few steps back, which he usually does when he has his back to the wall. He gave Muller more space, himself more time to work out his rival’s game and thwart his strategy by chasing down every ball. It threw Muller off, gnawed at his confidence. He struggled to fight off the momentum that Nadal was building.

After Nadal had taken the third and fourth sets to level the match, it looked like he would similarly run away with the fifth set. It hadn’t been a bruising encounter, but taking on Nadal’s physical prowess in the tie-break-free decider can be a daunting task.

Muller, who rarely shows any emotion on court, had put his game face on. The two held on to their respective service games strongly in the first nine games. Muller had the first crack at it, when Nadal served a double fault to go down 15-40 and hand his opponent two break points on a platter. But an ace and two service winners brought him back on track. Having fought off those break points, it looked like Nadal had pushed Muller to a tipping point.

Something had to give from Muller’s side, but the Luxembourgian kept serving himself into the lead. As the match crept to 10-10 and towards the territory of epic, it was like the blood in Muller’s veins had turned to ice, and he started playing with mechanical precision. Nadal was still blowing hot, his movement still electric, but it was his serve that came under constant threat. He staved off two more match points in the 20th game, on his serve, to make it 10-10.

The crowd was starting to shift and getting restless; as much as they wanted the match to end, they wanted the drama to go on. They started a Mexican wave, and had to be subdued by the umpire, who, from his high chair, said, “you can continue at the next changeover.” It was one of those matches which never looked like ending.

But it did; Nadal blinked. Serving at 13-14, he put a volley into the net to start the game and ended it to with two errors of his forehand — his stronger wing. His fight had run out. Muller raised his arms in the air in triumph, and offered a hint of a smile.

“Definitely the biggest win,” said Muller, offering a fuller explanation. “I had a big (elbow) injury in 2013 and wasn't sure if I was going to be able to come back. I’ve played many great matches since then, but this is definitely the biggest victory since I came back. Especially at this stage of a Grand Slam, playing one of the guys who is dominating tennis again this year.”

Updated Date: Jul 11, 2017 14:15 PM

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