Wimbledon 2017

Rise and rise of Muller puts paid to Nadal’s Wimbledon and No1 hopes in late-night thriller

French Open champion Rafael Nadal exits Wimbledon in round of 16 after Gilles Muller comes out on top in five-set thriller on Court No1 on Monday

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis at Wimbledon

“The last injury I had was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”

So said the gently-spoken big man from Luxembourg, Gilles Muller, who had just been part of the most dramatic match of Wimbledon so far this year. It lasted four and three-quarter hours, saw former champion Rafael Nadal come back from two sets to love down and survive four match points in the one and a half hour 15-13 deciding set.

But the in-form Spaniard, who had taken the season by storm to top the Race for London—and he has already qualified for the World Tour Finals—and to challenge for the No1 ranking during Wimbledon, could not survive the fifth.

No matter that Nadal had hit 77 winners for just 17 unforced errors, run over a metre per point more than his opponent, and ended the match with 198 points to 191. The remarkable Nadal could not break down the old-fashioned serve and volley tennis of his opposing left-hander.

Certainly 30 aces helped Muller’s cause, but so did the 59 points won at the net, many with such touch and variety that even the full-on sprinting of Nadal could not chase them down. For Muller is far from being a one-trick-pony. His serve is not all about power, but about mixing things up, from flat pace to vicious kick to deft slice. And he finished with almost twice as many winners as errors—and a place in his first Wimbledon quarter-final.

That intriguing comment afterwards, however, spoke of an emotional back-story, of a man who first broke the top 100 in 2004 when he was just 21, whose fortunes see-sawed from 59 a year later, to 160 in 2007, to 63 the next year, and 459 by 2010. He broke the top 50 in 2011 but plummeted again in 2014—producing that make-or-break moment.

He explained:

“I think for me the main reason [I have improved so much] is that I’ve been able to play full seasons now for the last three or four years, which I wasn’t able to do before because I had many injuries.

“Basically, 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 the best shape I ever was.

“Since then, since 2014 when I came back, I’m able to play full seasons without any breaks. I have a lot of confidence in my body now, which I didn’t do before. All this is changing a lot for me.”

He packed 2014 with Challengers, very successfully, but there was a hint of what was to come in the middle of the year: He came through Wimbledon qualifying to reach the second round, losing there to Roger Federer.

2015 started to see him in main draws and reaching the quarters: In Rotterdam, for example, he beat quality opposition such as David Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov.

And come the grass, that attacking style of play flourished again, with semis in s-Hertogenbosch and quarters at Queen’s.

Last year, he was making semis before reaching a first final, back on grass in The Netherlands, plus the semis at Nottingham, then another final in Newport. But through well over a decade of trying he had been unable to convert his five finals into a title—until this year.

The first came in Sydney, the second back at s-Hertogenbosch, and he almost beat Marin Cilic in the semis at Queen’s too.

At the age of 34, he hit a new career-high ranking of 26, and then got a big boost in the seedings from the Wimbledon committee, up to No16. By the time Wimbledon is done, he will up to 22 and, with another win, could break the top 20 for the first time.

It is Cilic who he next faces in the quarters here, though Muller was still a little shell-shocked when asked about it late on Monday:

“To be honest, I haven’t thought about it. But the only thing I can say, I played Marin not too long ago at the Queen’s Club in the semi-finals. I lost to him in three tough sets. Obviously he’s playing good: He had match points to win that tournament. I guess he’s playing pretty confident at the moment, feeling well.”

However, there are not many men this year who have played better on grass than Muller, who has won more grass matches, 10 of them, than anyone else. And gradually, it seemed to sink in that he had just done something quite extraordinary.

Where did this win rate in his career so far, he was asked:

“It’s definitely one of the biggest, if not the biggest. I mean, especially what I went through in 2013. I had a big injury. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to come back.

“I mean, I played many great matches since then [but] this is definitely the biggest victory since I came back, especially at that stage of a Grand Slam, playing one of the guys who is dominating tennis this year.

“Yeah, definitely the biggest win, I would say.”

Until the next one, perhaps. Watch out Cilic.

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