By Jatan Hunjan
Rafael Nadal’s hopes of winning a third Wimbledon title were shattered on Monday evening, as the unheralded Gilles Muller of Luxembourg defeated him in a titanic five-set struggle. The attritional final set of the match – which lasted almost five hours in total – was eventually won 15-13 by Muller, ranked 26 in the world. He waved to the court one crowd and soaked in the adulation to rapturous applause, despite the majority in attendance being vocal supporters of his Spanish opponent during the match.
Nadal, one of the favourites to win this year’s Wimbledon, began poorly, losing the first two sets, winning just seven games. But at two sets down the Spaniard’s famous fighting spirit kicked in and he turned his game up a few notches, winning the next two sets with relative ease. Prior to this fourth round clash, Nadal banged his head on the ceiling of the players’ entrance tunnel while doing his famous warm-up squat jump. Muller jokingly commented that this was why his opponent didn’t put up much resistance during the first two sets.
The crowd were transfixed throughout the extended final set, permanently on the edges of their seats. It was impossible to predict who’d win. Nadal is famous known for his tenacity and while grass is perhaps his least favourite surface, the ball is bouncing more slowly at Wimbledon this year which suited his game. As the game progressed into effective sudden-death it became a battle of mental strength. Everyone knowing Nadal to be resolute, no one knowing Gilles Muller to be a Zen warrior too. The momentum swung back and forth, some rallies long and loaded with magnificent ground shots and volleys – others simply rocketing aces.
It would be a fair criticism to say that Nadal’s game seemed too conserved, his usual aggression seemed dampened but others will appreciate the professional expertise of Gilles Muller. Nadal heroically saved four match points, but in the end the 34-year-old veteran Muller prevailed. He hammered down an impressive 30 aces against arguably the best returner in modern tennis.
Even though Muller won the match in the end, 15-time Grand Slam winner Nadal actually won overall seven points more than Muller. Also surprisingly, the man from Luxembourg hit a shocking 52 unforced errors to Nadal’s 17. Just goes to show how strong the power of will is. Muller defied the odds but most importantly the crowd, with the vast majority of the fans cheering “Vamos Rafa”, which translates to “c’mon Rafa”. Muller will play the seventh seed Marin Cilic next in the quarter finals.