Twelve years after defeating a then-19-year-old Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, 16th seed Gilles Muller has done it again. In the match of the tournament, the Luxembourg native is through to his first quarter-final at the All England Club after shocking the Spaniard 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 in an epic fourth-round clash on Monday.
“Definitely the biggest win [of my career], I would say,” said Muller. “I had a big [elbow] injury in 2013 and wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to come back. I’ve played many great matches since then, but this is definitely the biggest victory since I came back. Especially at this stage of a Grand Slam, playing one of the guys who is dominating tennis again this year.”
Muller, currently at a career-high No. 26 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, was given a seeding boost due to his grass-court prowess. He took the title last month at the Ricoh Open (d. Karlovic) and recorded a semi-final showing at the Aegon Championships. The 34 year old won his maiden ATP World Tour crown this January in Sydney (d. Evans), with the momentous occasion capped off by having the trophy presented to him by Rod Laver and his family witnessing the moment live.
“I think the main reason [for my success this year] is that I’ve been able to play full seasons for the past three or four years, which I wasn’t able to do before because I had many injuries,” said Muller. “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 my best shape ever. Since coming back in 2014, I’m able to play full seasons without any breaks and have a lot of confidence in my body now.”
Muller saved two match points in his second-round victory over Lukas Rosol, prevailing 9-7 in the fifth set. He has also won more matches than anyone on grass this year, with 10 victories coming into this contest against Nadal. Muller improves his FedEx ATP Head2Head against Nadal to 2-4, with three of their matches coming at Wimbledon. Nadal prevailed in 2011, while Muller scored the aforementioned win in 2005.
Next up for Muller is seventh seed Marin Cilic, a winner earlier in the day over 18th seed Roberto Bautista Agut. Cilic leads his FedEx ATP Head2Head against Muller 2-0, including a semi-final victory last month at the Aegon Championships
“Obviously he’s playing good. He had match point to win [at the Aegon Championships]. He’s back in the quarter-finals here again,” said Muller. “I guess he’s pretty confident at the moment. It looks like he’s feeling good and playing well, so it’s going to be a tough match.
“I probably won’t feel great tomorrow, but I’m pretty confident that I will be in good shape for Wednesday,” he added. “I have a day off tomorrow. I have a physio traveling with me for the past few weeks, so this is going to be a big plus for me. I’m going to have a lot of time to do a lot of treatment tonight. Come to the club tomorrow, hit a few balls, sweat a little bit and then get treatment again. I think I’ll be fine for Wednesday.”
Nadal was looking to reach his first quarter-final at the All England Club since 2011. His fifth set against Muller was the longest he’s played by games in his Wimbledon career. The next longest was his 9-7 deciding set against Roger Federer in the 2008 final.
“It’s more difficult when you play against a player like him that doesn’t give you a lot of rhythm. I had my chance in the beginning. But when you play against these kinds of players, you cannot have mistakes with yourself,” said Nadal. “That’s what I did twice in the first and second sets. That cost me two sets.
“It’s difficult to come back after being down two sets against a player like him. I think I did well,” he added. “I had good chances in the fifth set, but he had more chances than me. So maybe he deserved it a little more than me.”
Muller grabbed the lone break of the opening set at 3-2 to take the early advantage. Both men remained on serve in the second set until 4-4, when a backhand approach from Nadal found its way into the net and gave Muller another break. The Luxembourg native ripped a forehand up the line on his second set point for a commanding lead.
But in typical Nadal fashion, the Spaniard refused to go away quietly and broke Muller twice for a 4-1 lead in the third set. The 16th seed earned one of the breaks back, but Nadal confidently served out the set to close the gap. A backhand unforced error from Muller at 2-2 in the fourth set provided Rafa with the crucial break and he ultimately levelled the contest.
Both men traded service holds throughout the marathon fifth set. Nadal went down two match points at 4-5, but erased them with aggressive baseline play. Muller did some digging of his own as well, saving a break point at 6-6 with a service winner and four more break points at 9-9. The 16th seed eventually fired his 100th ace of the tournament to hold serve.
Muller earned a third match point chance with Nadal serving at 9-10, but the Spaniard erased it with a forehand volley winner. A fourth match point also came and went after the Luxembourg native sent a forehand return long and Nadal eventually held serve for 10-10.
With Nadal serving at 13-14, a forehand long on Muller’s fifth match point ended the contest after four hours and 47 minutes. The Luxembourg native looked up to his box in shock as the magnitude of the occasion began to sink in.