Wimbledon: Gilles Muller knocks out Rafael Nadal after epic

The 34-year-old veteran kept his nerve after almost five hours to defeat the Spaniard

There is an artificial intelligence programme working in Wimbledon’s dungeons. Developed by IBM, the machinery is programmed to notice fist pumps by players, when the crowd become noisy or angry, when fans stand up from their seats or when somebody falls on the ground.

It is trained to pick up on human expressions of excitement or disappointment, the movements and the sounds that illustrate emotional over spill.

It then collects the footage, knowing it is the most exciting part of the match and sends it around the world for stations and websites to use in their coverage.

In that chilling human-free scenario, Rafael Nadal would not have figured anywhere on the planet until the fourth game of the third set in his charged match against Gilles Muller, a 34-year-old Luxemburger, who has found in the twilight of his career the candles flaring up and burning brighter than ever.


Then, even Nadal's rediscovered greatness wasn’t enough.

Lefty Muller shot to a two set 6-3, 6-4 lead against a subdued and barely flickering twice Wimbledon champion.

In a surreal couple of minutes as the Spaniard sat on his chair during the changeover, Court One muttering began, quietly at first and then into a concerned murmur of 13,000 people.

Roofless and bathed in sun, forlorn Nadal staring at his feet in the hurt locker.

As if spurred by the trough Muller created the animated game Nadal is known for kicked in as his shot making from back court cut Muller at will.

Higher tempo

Nadal read Muller’s game of depowering. He played the slices and drop shots, the spin and the feathered balls and burst back into the game, imposing a higher tempo.

Nadal had returned drilling out the third and fourth sets 6-3, 6-4 for 2-2. But in the biggest match of Muller’s career, he was not about to be crumble despite Nadal in hammering mode.

The match flipped again and in the fifth set it was Muller who went from being overwhelmed to knocking the 30-year-old out of his preferred game.

Regrouped, re-energised and playing varied shorter shots against a back court opponent, Muller’s precision serves and his reading again began to threaten the fourth seed.

At 4-5 down in the fifth, Nadal found himself serving to stay in the tournament – in itself a triumph for Muller who would have found it hard to believe he could reduce the match to such fine margins against a 10 times French Open champion.

But his thoughtful, unfussy game of redirection and medium power accuracy helped him to two match points and the end in view.

Two aces and two big first serves later, the twirls in the air and howling at the crowd returned. Thoughts then centred on Muller, 34-years-old and the match heading towards four hours.

But the contest had organically begun to develop epic characteristics, not only because of its length but also the prospect of an adored and struggling champion.

It spun on to 7-7, 8-8 and 9-9, where Nadal gouged and poked out four break points but was unable to convert any of them despite Muller’s unforced error count spiralling past 45.

Muller earned a third match point with Nadal serving at 9-10 down. But it was saved again. A fourth match point arrived when Muller pushed the Spaniard wide and volleyed into an open court, a mishit forehand on the next point taking it back to deuce.

It went to 10-10, Nadal feeling that soon his opportunity would arrive as the clock passed four hours 15 minutes, the court full, Henman Hill strewn with bodies.

Wide serve

No, 11-11 came and went and then 12-12; the older player ’s wide serve and volley game prudently keeping the points short.

At 13-13 neither player’s serve had been broken for a run of 31 straight games, Nadal having to serve to stay in the match nine times.

Then it turned. The serve that had been threatened all night handed over the fifth match point. Nadal put fractionally too much on his forehand and it fell long. Muller dropped his racquet and simply stared.

After 17 years he had won the match of his life and earned his first Wimbledon quarterfinal in four hours 48 minutes, the longest match of the championship so far.

How do you feel, Muller was asked.

“Tired,” he said. “Great feeling to be winning that match. I didn’t feel I was playing bad in the third and fourth set. I just said ‘keep it going.’ At the end it was a matter of a few points here and there

“I haven’t realised what just happened. It is a great feeling. I’m just glad it’s over and I’m in the quarter finals now.”

Nadal, frustrated and unsure of how the match bolted away when he had drawn it back from two sets down to 2-2 refused to blame an accident in the tunnel where he banged his head.

“It was nothing, a minor accident,” he said dismissively.

“I didn’t want to lose that match so it’s tough to analyse it in a positive way now. You know when you play this kind of player you cannot make mistakes with your shots. It’s so difficult to come back after two sets against a player like him.”

Andy Murray no longer has Nadal to consider. The chips may be falling his way.

Novac Djokovic will play his fourth round match against Adrian Mannarino on Tuesday at 12pm on Centre Court after the pair had been waiting for the Nadal-Muller match to finish before officials called an end to play for the day.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times