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Match of the Year 2017: Rafael Nadal vs Gilles Muller, Wimbledon Round of 16

Day Seven: The Championships - Wimbledon 2017
Muller and Nadal played out the match of 2017

Men’s tennis has been a fantasy narrative and 2017 was its fairytale year. The ATP circuit witnessed its most remarkable year in recent memory, a whirlwind of sorts with a plethora of hard-fought matches and quirky moments.

A sizable chunk of the tennis world was delighted with the resurgence of Fedal. The exemplary quartet was a thing of past as the duopoly of the two greatest, Federer and Nadal, topped the sporting headlines, overshadowing Djokovic and Murray.

For the first time ever, the duo shared the four Grand Slams between them. The Australian Open and Wimbledon went to the Swiss, while the French and US Opens were pocketed by the southpaw.

Reminiscent of their respective glory days, the pair time-traveled to set the Grand Slam stage on fire with an epic five-setter Australian Open finale, with Federer eventually crowned champion.

The French Open was home to Nadal’s record-breaking 10th title, where he defeated Stan Wawrinka in the final. The mastery of Federer reigned supreme on grass with the GOAT claiming his 8th Wimbledon title. Flushing Meadows saw Nadal triumphant over first time finalist Kevin Anderson and comprehensively sealing the year-end Number 1 ranking.

Throwback

The 2017 ATP world tour season has been on of the most memorable ever, with scintillating matches aplenty. There was a titanic five-set clash between Nadal and Dimitrov at the Australian Open, Wawrinka getting the better of Murray at the French Open, an epic comeback victory by Juan Martin del Potro against Dominic Thiem at the US Open, and not to forget the Federer-Nadal rivalry 2.0.

Those were just the cream of the crop amongst the many stunning matches of the year. But when we talk about stunning matches, an avid tennis follower is sure to gush about one monumental clash at the 2017 Wimbledon.

How often does a Round of 16 match grab all the limelight, especially when one of the contenders is a veteran who has never tasted Grand Slam success? No surprises for guessing I am talking about the David vs Goliath battle between Rafael Nadal and Gilles Muller at the All England Club.

The Round of 16 tussle between the two left-handers was their second Wimbledon meeting. Nadal had an overall head to head advantage of 4-1, the only loss coming at the same arena in 2005.

Nadal is an absolute legend of the game and has won almost everything the game has to offer. Muller on the other hand was a huge underdog, and the match was touted to be nothing more than a regulation one before the quarterfinals for Nadal.

Muller is a late bloomer of sorts; being injury prone hasn't helped his cause at the top level. But a late-career renaissance by the Luxembourg-born player and an excellent 12 months heading into Wimbledon meant that he wasn't exactly a pushover.

Nadal had a great Australian Open and Muller had won his first ever ATP title at Sydney and followed it up by a title victory at the Ricoh Open. 2017 was also the year Muller broke into the Top 30, and he was seeded 26th at Wimbledon.

Muller dominates with vintage serve and volleying

The 34-year-old Muller is a powerful player with a crushing first serve, and he effortlessly held his serve and dominated the run of play. Nadal was slow to get off the blocks but still made Muller hop around with clever groundstrokes.

It was the sixth game in the first set and Muller drew first blood, breaking Nadal’s serve and gaining a 4-2 lead. Muller is an exponent of serve and volleying, a vintage sight of sorts, and his excellent net skills make him a tough opponent on his day.

Controlled rallies and unbelievable serving and volleying saw Muller consolidate the break to ease past Nadal and serve out the first set 6-3. It was a no-nonsense end to the first set, an aberration of sorts for Nadal.

The second set began with Nadal serving with new vigour, moving around quickly and gaining some momentum with his stroke play. But Muller was in the zone with his impeccable serving, and he held on with ease.

An unbelievable rally in the eighth game, probably the best of the tournament, had both players stretching, running, volleying and hitting some insane strokes and passes.

Muller held his serve to make it 4-4 in the second set. The frustration was getting to Nadal and he became tentative, which was enough for the determined Muller to force two break points in the ninth game. And a slice into the net condemned Nadal into trailing 4-5.

The Spaniard was on the defensive and had to bring his A-game to counter the 6 feet 4 inch Muller’s deadly bazooka-like serves. But he could not, and a cool-headed Muller did what he is good at: serving big and easy and wrapping up the second set 6-3.

Nadal, staring at another unceremonious Wimbledon ouster, was in unfamiliar territory being 0-2 sets down. The only time Muller was in the last eight of a Grand Slam was way back at the 2008 US Open, but he was looking in the zone now and was just one set away from the biggest win of his life.

However, Nadal is a champion and he wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Nadal recuperates

Nadal began the third set serving venomously and exhibiting the full array of his groundstrokes. Muller looked composed and though his serve seemed to lack that verve of the first two sets, he held on to his service.

The first break of serve came in the fourth game of the third set, with Nadal pumped up and playing some outlandish shots.

Muller managed to hold onto his serves but a narrow opening was all Nadal needed to sneak back into the match. A brilliant game under a minute with pummeling forehand winners helped Nadal close the third set 6-3.

The 4th seed well and truly back in the match. The crowd came down to see their champion, and they were roaring with his comeback.

The fourth set began with both players consolidating and holding on to their serves, swift and tight. Beautiful lobs, disguised drop shots and fantastic baseline dominance from Nadal took the scoreline to 2-2. But in the fifth game of the set Nadal pounced on serve faults, forced errors from Muller and the game moved to deuce.

A wonderful rally with Nadal flexing his athleticism, striking a winner from well behind the baseline, gave him break point and subsequently a 3-2 lead. Nadal pushed himself to the limit to hit winner after winner, clearly toying with Muller’s inability to last in long rallies. He overpowered Muller 6-4 and took the match into a deciding fifth set.

Muller might have thought it would be a cakewalk with Nadal cornered after the first two sets. But he was proven wrong, much to the crowd’s delight, and now had to bring his alpha game to stop the Spaniard.

Fifth set: a see-saw battle

Nadal hadn’t been in the Wimbledon last eight since 2011 and this was his chance at redemption on a surface which hasn't been his close ally in recent years. The fifth set started with both players putting strangleholds on their service games, repeatedly trading holds. The two 30-somethings pushed like it was the match of their lives, with the crowd zealous and the clock ticking past the three-hour mark.

The first dramatic moment in the set came when Nadal served at 4-5 and was down 15-40 - two break points and match points for Muller. Things were looking ominous for the fourth seed and it was Muller’s chance to seal a last eight spot. But three brilliant serves including two aces were served hot, and Muller was left cold. Break points saved, it was back to a service hold from Nadal.

With nerve-wracking serves and tentative shot making combined with some terrific athleticism, both Nadal and Muller were going the distance each point, each game. Charging to the net, clawing their way back, it was a test of endurance; grit would decide the winner here more than skill.

Nadal began to tighten the screws yet Muller found a way back in the game. Muller in hindsight never really let Nadal dominate. And Nadal, often constructing winning plays from seemingly defensive positions, was found wanting with his putaways at times.

The match see-sawed back and forth until it was 9-9 and Muller serving. That was the best chance Nadal had to close out the match. His bludgeoning forehands down the line and blistering forehand returns gave him four break point opportunities in the game.

But Muller was ice cool, showing sheer guts, and his serves found the mark when needed the most. He rose from the ashes and bagged the lead again with some impeccable serving and volleying.

The drama intensified in the very next game with Muller forcing a sliced drop wide, in the process getting two match points at his disposal. But a brilliant rally from Nadal, his groundstrokes audacious and court coverage tenacious, meant he held serve at 10-10 - taking the match well past the 4-hour mark.

Right down to the wire

A few quiet service holds later, with both players relying on their strength and waiting for their opponents to make a mistake, it was 12-12 and the challenges were restored - three apiece. Rasping rallies and players gasping for breath; we had seen all that the game of tennis had to offer.

The elated fist pumps, wild roars of ecstasy and cries of despair from the two players added to the wave in the court. At 13-14 in the fifth set and 15-30 in the game with Nadal serving, Muller sent a peach of a forehand return, with the forehand return from Nadal going long.

It was 40-0 and Muller was staring into an abyss of the unknown, his biggest victory till date and a last eight contention within grasp. He pushed Nadal deep and the forehand return fired from the racquet was long. GAME-SET-MATCH!

15-13, and the fifth set went to Gilles Muller. When the customary handshakes were exchanged both players were soaked in mutual admiration for they had played out the match of the tournament, probably the year. Nadal could only rue his lost opportunities in the match but magnanimously applaud the mammoth effort by the Luxembourger.

Spell-binding tennis, roof dilemmas, sun woes in the court, breaking Wimbledon scheduling - the 4 hour 48-minute marathon that unfolded was of epic proportions. The match will go down in folklore as one of the biggest upsets and one of the most riveting tennis matches ever played on the grass. The final scoreline read 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13, a classic encounter, to say the least!

A match for the ages if ever there was one.

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Edited by Shraishth Jain
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