Gilles Muller is into just the second Grand Slam quarterfinal of his career, his first since 2008, and his first at Wimbledon, and he got there in about the most incredible, improbable fashion imaginable.
With a stunningly assured performance Monday, the 34-year-old from Luxembourg toppled world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at the All England Club, withstanding a furious comeback and then an extended, agonizingly taut fifth set to win 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 in four hours and 48 minutes. The fifth set alone lasted well over two hours, with no breaks of serve until Muller finally cracked Nadal on his fifth match point.
As he's aged, and as the mileage has piled up on his overworked knees, Nadal has had an increasingly difficult time making the transition from clay to grass. (Not that it's an easy transition to begin with, but a young Nadal navigated it exceedingly well, making the finals at both the French Open and Wimbledon five times between 2006 and 2011, and winning both titles in 2008 and 2010.) The more recent and slightly more human version of Nadal hasn't reached the quarters at the All England Club since that last finals berth in 2011.
It wasn't the same old story at this year's tournament, though. Nadal, in the midst of one of the greatest bounce-back seasons of all time, seemed to make the transition seamlessly. He played brilliantly throughout the first week, and came into Monday's match having won 28 consecutive sets, the longest such streak of his career.
And despite the result, his level didn't really drop against Muller. He was his typically ferocious, resilient self. Eight times he stepped to the line having to serve to stay in the match, and held, despite falling behind in all but two of them. He came up with huge serves in huge spots, volleyed effectively, hit curling forehands up the line, and ran down tailing drop shots. He hit 77 winners against just 17 unforced errors, cracked 23 aces (a career high!), and won 73 percent of his service points - a higher percentage than Muller won on his serve. In no universe should those numbers equate to a loss, but his opponent was just that good.
It's been a fine season for Muller, who's made three finals and won the first two titles of his career, including the grass-court tuneup in 's-Hertogenbosch last month. And he's exactly the type of big-serving, net-rushing, crafty player that's given Nadal fits on grass in recent years. But there was little to suggest he had this kind of performance in him; that he could go blow for blow with perhaps the game's greatest fighter in a 28-game deciding set; that he could recover from losing a two-set lead, and erase 14 of 16 break points, and hold serve 15 times in a row against the world's second-ranked player.
But Muller just kept chugging along, catching the corners of the service box with nasty sliding serves out wide, guiding precision forehands along funky angles that opened up the court, junking up Nadal's rhythm with heavy backhand slices, flicking drop volleys that died where they fell. He fired 30 aces and 95 winners, with 11 and 44 coming in the final set.
He treated all this with the calm expectancy of one who'd been there before. He made it all seem like it was the most normal thing in the world for him. He hadn't, and it wasn't. But all that mattered was he believed it.