Tuesday 21 November 2017

Muller holds his nerve to send Nadal packing in five-set epic

Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller reacts after his thrilling victory over Rafa Nadal. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs
Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller reacts after his thrilling victory over Rafa Nadal. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs

Jeremy Wilson

Rafael Nadal got the first eye-watering sign that this would be no normal day while he waited in the corridors of Court One.

As is his routine, Nadal was squatting down and preparing to leap into the air in an effort to awaken his muscles.

But he had not reckoned for the beam directly above his head and duly smashed straight into it. He did quickly see the funny side of his unfortunate but it was subsequently tempting to wonder if it then took two sets for the full effects of his mishap to wear off.

Nadal stood repeatedly on the brink here against Gilles Muller, a player who had last beaten him when he was still a teenager in 2005, before ultimately succumbing in a five-set epic 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 13-15.

It is an easy cliché to talk of a match having everything but, amid a near five-hour contrast in styles that see-sawed back and forth before culminating in the shock of this year's championship, it was hard to think of a single missing ingredient.

As well as trailing by two sets, Nadal had saved four match-points before an uncharacteristically tired final groundstroke ended a final set of the highest drama and quality.

The sensation was not just in the outcome but also how Muller largely achieved it by serving and volleying with a regularity and touch that is almost unheard of in modern tennis.

Nadal's difficulties will have been slightly less surprising to those who most closely follow the ATP Tour.

Yes, he has been back approaching something like his best this year with a remarkable 16-1 winning record in Grand Slams but Muller is also enjoying one of the finest periods of a rather more moderate career.

His game is almost a throwback in its theoretical suitability to the grass-courts of Wimbledon but, in 10 previous attempts, he had never previously reached the last 16.

Yet with a big swinging left-handed serve; low, sliced backhand; deft volleys; and willingness to go for his shots from the back of the court, he really should be threatening any opponent on this surface.

With two tournament wins already this summer, Muller has belatedly begun to realise that potential and has actually won more matches on grass this summer than anyone on the ATP Tour.

That confidence was quickly evident. Whereas Nadal was unusually cautious from the back of the court during the first set, Muller was immediately playing with considerable freedom, in stepping in and going for the lines.

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His bravery was rewarded in him winning the first set with a series of winners despite Nadal not making a single unforced error.

Nadal briefly left the court in an effort to compose himself but there was still tangible nervousness about his play throughout the second set.

He had chances to recover in the middle of the set and while he could count himself unfortunate with the cruel net-cord that Muller received to set up break-point in the fifth game, he then dumped a routine backhand into the net.

Muller duly served out, clinching the set with two big, brave ground strokes that found the edge of lines from the back of the court.

Nadal was also tentative at the start of his third set but a break did finally arrive in the fourth game and he went on to secure a lifeline.

Nadal was not about to let the chance slip and, playing with far more aggression, took the match into an epic fifth set.

Both players served with renewed conviction and determination at the start of the thrilling decider, in which Muller traded shot for shot with the 15-time Grand Slam champion.

Nadal saved the first match-point with an ace and the second with another first serve that Muller dumped into the net.

Still Muller attacked but spectacularly top-edged his return on the fourth chance for the biggest win of his career.

Nadal then produced a half-volley of pure genius to hold serve. It felt like a potential turning point but Muller had not read the script.

He repeatedly threatened to break and, at the fifth attempt, clinched the greatest victory of his career. (© Daily Telegraph, London.)

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