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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

On The Busiest Day In Tennis, Rafael Nadal Fell In Five Hours

Tim Ireland/AP Images
Tim Ireland/AP Images

At Wimbledon, per tradition, the first Sunday is a day of rest. By design there are never any matches scheduled. (Unless rain has derailed the first week of play, in which case, they play out of necessity.) Still, on that day the practice courts are abuzz. Here is how the New York Times describes this quaint scene:

There were hand slaps and fist bumps galore as contenders and coaches crossed paths on the grass. A small gallery of observers — friends, would-be friends, agents, would-be agents, tournament officials and journalists — milled about on the viewing platforms above.

It is one of the great scenes in tennis — all the better this Sunday with a powder-blue Tiepolo sky for a backdrop — and it doubles as a scene setter for the second week of the granddaddy of all tennis tournaments.


Wow. Take it all in with a side of strawberries and champagne. Must be nice. The flip side of this is that come Monday, the best four players in the modern era—Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—would play their fourth-round matches in overlapping time slots, making it hard for any one person to commit their attention to any one match in particular. A surplus of good tennis washed over millions of overstimulated eyeballs. Some would argue, reasonably, that this scheduling is idiotic and maybe even wasteful of these players’ efforts. Whatever you believe, there were plenty of distractions that might have kept you, like me, from seeing one of the best points of the tournament:

Turns out that this was not at all a representative slice of the first two sets of Nadal’s match, both of which the No. 4 seed lost to No. 16 seed Gilles Müller. The last time Müller beat Nadal was way back in 2005, in the second round of Wimbledon. And now he was just one set away from echoing that feat in 2017. His aggression was paying dividends—he took the first set without the gift of a single unforced error.

Müller, aged 34 but playing the best tennis of his life, just hit a career peak of No. 26 in the world, and the Luxembourger’s Wimbledon seeding was sweetened another 10 slots thanks to his sharp play on grass as of late; his 10 grass wins are more than anyone on tour. Still, you had to expect that Nada would find a way to win, would cancel out a two-sets-to-love deficit for the first time in a decade. (This fact might seem shocking, and it is, but then you think about how rare it is that Rafa goes down two sets at all in the first place.) Nadal had been mishitting routine balls. He’d rectify that eventually; no point watching until the ending.

So I tuned out for a while, watched Federer close out his mini-me Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets, and returned for the fifth set, exactly as promised. Both players held steady and hurtled towards the end of the set, which is never cut short by an unceremonious tiebreak. Someone must eventually win by two games. At 5-4 Nadal, who had by now eased back into his usual brilliance, served himself out of two Müller match points with an ace and another unreturned serve—not his usual way of doing things but always welcome in dire circumstances. Meanwhile Müller, as Sixers supporter Joel Embiid correctly observed, was serving dead-eyed steel. His odd, lunging lefty delivery hisses in with heavy slice, and he was taking service games at love thanks to clean hitting and this kind of half-volleyed trickery:

The shotmaking never really stopped, even under maximal pressure. An ice-cold Müller shut down 14 of the 16 break points he faced in this match, including all five in the deciding set. This one he nullified with flair:

But Nadal kept churning, and churning:

Nadal, who sleepwalked through his successful French Open campaign, was fired up in a way we have not seen in recent memory; the fat vein striping his left bicep got a lot of screen time, starring in every celebratory uppercut. But eventually, after four hours and 48 minutes, and 28 games of fifth set play, the Spaniard cracked, granting Müller the 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 victory. This wasn’t the upset it might initially appear—Müller’s been as sharp on grass as anyone, and grass is the surface least suited to Nadal’s game—but it does rob the tournament of a marquee name, and fans of any fantasy Fedal final. Müller goes on to play Marin Čilić in the quarterfinal.