By Jane Voigt
Let’s say you were a casual tennis fan and happened to turn on the match between Rafael Nadal and Gilles Muller, during their fifth set today at Wimbledon. Chances are you never stopped watching. Not many would, it was too compelling.
Serving from behind throughout the fifth, Nadal faced 4 match points yet failed to yield to the 34-year-old Luxembourg native with the best grass-court record of the year: now 11-1. But oh that fifth match point.
Muller stood erect on Court 1’s crumbling, dirty baseline the moment the scoreboard affirmed his wildest dreams and unfulfilled personal expectations. He’d beaten arguably an odds-on favorite to win the title this year and a two-time Wimbledon champion: 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13.
Muller’s serene gaze toward his player’s box was the exact same look he carried throughout the match. That Zen-like posture was key to his victory, too, because he had no precedent in beating an elite player this deep in a Grand Slam. Meaning … his task was purely one of mechanics. Otherwise, he would’ve lost. Derailed by his own mind or by Nadal, who is a solid 15-time Grand Slam Champion.
“It was a long match,” Muller told the BBC, immediately following his win. “I was up two sets then Rafa steps it up. [I] believe I had one match point. When I had the last two match points, I said give it a shot.”
“Well … he played well,” Nadal said in press. “I didn’t play my best first two sets. He played well, especially in the fifth.”
Humble as always, Nadal should’ve said ‘we played well in the fifth.’
For the match, Nadal won 197 points to Muller’s 187. The Spaniard served 23 aces, the most he’s ever served in a match. He won more points on second serves than Muller, too, and equaled his fastest serve minus one: 126 (Muller) to 125 (Nadal). Muller hit more winners, 94, but Nadal outdid him on the comparison of winners to unforced errors: 77-17.
“When you play against these types of players when you cannot have mistakes with your shots, that cost me two sets,” Nadal lamented. “So difficult to come back against player like him.”
“I haven’t realized what’s happened,” Muller said. “It’s a great feeling.”
Great feelings for the six-foot-four Muller have come far and few in-between. Normally relegated to the journeyman category or laughing stock, he has had little success. In fact he played on tour for 15 years before winning his first title at Sydney in January. He has never advanced beyond the third round at Wimbledon (2011) and never made it past the fourth at any Grand Slam.
Today, he did. A father of two with enough belief to surpass any mental barrier he’d carried around his entire career.
The BBC asked him if he knew Prince Sebastien of Luxembourg was watching. Muller’s head dropped as he averted his eyes. “I heard he was going to come. His whole family is a tennis family.”
This was Nadal’s fifth consecutive Wimbledon where he failed to advance beyond the fourth round. Muller, though, is ranked No. 26, a career high. The other four opponents were ranked outside the top 100 when they beat Nadal.
“I didn’t want to lose that match,” Nadal said. “It’s tough to analyze that match. It’s difficult to lose. It’s more difficult now when you play against a man like him. You have no rhythm. I was there fighting until the last ball with the right tactic. Not my best match, but I played against an uncomfortable opponent.”
By that he meant Muller gave him no rhythm. His lefty ballistic serves aimed at Nadal’s body. And, as quick as the Spaniard is he couldn’t adjust. No player really knows how to adjust for serves like that. And from one lefty to another, the experience is thin.
“I had good chances in the fifth. I think he had more chances than me,” Nadal began. “But I was there, too. Those break points were almost like match points. I am better than him from the baseline.”
No doubt. But Muller hung with Nadal at the baseline, which did not add to his confidence. Usually an opponent that challenges Nadal baseline to baseline comes up way short. But the opportunity to extend points wasn’t apparent. Muller made sure to change up. Lobs followed by drop shots. Dagger slices. Acute angles from all parts of the court. Serves to every corner of the service boxes.
Throughout the set Nadal was under pressure, serving from behind. “I had to play against the score all the time,” he said.
Even with that hill to climb, Muller showed that his rise in the rankings may not have topped out. Four years ago, he was ranked No. 147. His steady ascent can be attributed to changes in coaches, trainers and an attitude that used to drag him to the dark side if a match started to go south.
Next up for Muller is Marin Cilic (No. 7) who obliterated the 18th seed, Roberto Bautista-Agut: 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.