If Gilles Muller’s fourth-round victory over Rafael Nadal was the longest match of The Championships so far – it lasted almost five hours, and culminated with a 15-13 fifth set – it was also the most compelling.
This was quite the afternoon, and then evening, for Nadal, who had appeared to be in his best grass court form in years. Going through his usual pre-match kangaroo jumps in the final backstage moments before he walked out to play Muller, Nadal had bumped his head on the door frame. And that certainly wasn’t the end of his difficulties on No.1 Court against that rare opponent – a serve-and-volleyer from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.
Having gone six months without giving up a single set at the Grand Slams, the Majorcan dropped three of them over four hours and 47 minutes against Muller, and so you still have to spool back to 2011 for the last time that the 2008 and 2010 champion progressed into the last eight.
This was absolutely compelling tennis, with Muller taking the opening two sets, before, Nadal being Nadal – he is the most competitive man to have ever gripped a tennis racket – the Majorcan came back into this.
The fifth set alone took more than two hours. While Nadal had saved a couple of match points when serving at 4-5 in the fifth set, and then a couple more at 9-10, he ultimately couldn’t avoid defeat, with Muller taking his fifth opportunity.
“I haven’t really realised what just happened. It’s a great feeling,” Muller said in the moments after his 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 win took him into the quarter-finals for the first time. For Nadal, who had plenty of breakpoint opportunities in the fifth set, there was only huge disappointment.
Coming into this meeting of thirty-something lefties, Nadal had won the last 28 sets he had played at the majors, having not dropped one since his defeat to Roger Federer in January’s Australian Open final. Only two men had ever put together longer runs at the majors, with Federer’s 36-set stretch across 2006-7 and John McEnroe’s 35-set sequence in 1984.
Until playing Muller, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that Nadal’s greatest challenge during his time in London had been trying to work out the self-service tills when buying some soft drinks at a supermarket in Wimbledon Village.
Unfortunately for Nadal, such a fine recent record at the Grand Slams – he only dropped 35 games all tournament
at Roland Garros in scoring a record 10th title – doesn’t give you much protection on the grass when your opponent is serving as brilliantly as Muller was.
The other day at the All England Club, Muller hit four consecutive aces in a game. If that was grass court perfection in miniature, this match brought pretty much the ideal performance from Muller. Grass tends to elicit the best of Muller’s tennis. While Nadal didn’t play a warm-up tournament before Wimbledon, Muller had been busy, reaching the semi-finals at Queen’s Club, and winning the title at ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
And it’s not as if Muller doesn’t have previous experience of beating Nadal at The Championships, having done so in the second round in 2005.
But Nadal, having played to such a high level at the Grand Slams this season, and demonstrating his usual competitive nature, was hardly going to fade away. With cries of “Rafa, Rafa” between points, Nadal came back into this. The fifth set was great entertainment. But it was Muller who went through to play Croatia’s Marin Cilic on Wednesday.
Source: Mark Hodgkinson| Wimbledon