First, Rafael Nadal erased a two-set deficit. Then, he erased four match points. Nadal could not, however, erase the fifth.
After digging himself out of difficult situations over and over during the course of a riveting encounter that lasted more than 4 ½ hours, Nadal suddenly faltered, getting broken in the last game and losing to 16th-seeded Gilles Muller of Luxembourg 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 in the fourth round of Wimbledon on Monday.
“It’s tough to say what, exactly, made the difference at the end,” Muller said. “To be honest, I haven’t really realised what just happened.”
The surprising defeat extended Nadal’s drought without a quarter-final berth at the All England Club to six years.
He has won two of his 15 Grand Slam championships at Wimbledon, and played in the final three other times, most recently in 2011. But since then, Nadal’s exits at the All England Club have come in the first round (2013), second round (2012, 2015) and fourth round (2014, 2017).
All of those losses, except Monday’s, came against men ranked 100th or worse. The 34-year-old Muller is not exactly a giant-killer: He had lost 22 consecutive matches against foes ranked in the top five. And he’d only reached a Grand Slam quarter-final once before, at the 2008 U.S. Open.
“If I had lost that match,” Muller said, “it would have been tough to digest.”
But Muller’s powerful serve and crisp volleys make him what Nadal called “uncomfortable” to play. And Muller — who already owned one victory over Nadal at Wimbledon, back in the second round in 2005 — managed to pull this one out, unfazed despite allowing opportunities to pass him by.
Nadal served from behind throughout the final set and was twice a point from losing in its 10th game. He again was twice a point from losing in the 20th. Only when Muller got yet another chance to end it did he, when Nadal got broken by pushing a forehand long.
“When you are in the fifth, against a player like him, (the outcome) just depends on a few balls,” Nadal said, shaking his head. “Actually, he was a little better than me on a few balls.”
One key: Nadal converted only 2 of 16 break points. That included going 0 for 5 in the fifth set, four in one game, and was a big reason that the No. 4-seeded Spaniard lost despite remarkable totals of 77 winners and 17 unforced errors.
Nadal entered the match having won 28 consecutive completed sets in Grand Slam play, equalling his personal best and a total exceeded only twice in the Open era. He arrived at the All England Club coming off his record 10th French Open championship, and 15th major trophy overall, and seemed primed to be a factor again at the grass-court tournament.
From 2006-11, Nadal reached the final in five consecutive appearances at Wimbledon (he missed it in 2009 because of bad knees), winning titles in 2008 and 2010. But now he heads home, while Muller’s next opponent will be 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic.