RAFAEL NADAL will take little solace in the knowledge that his exhausting round-of-sixteen defeat to the veteran Gilles Muller has been the most compelling match on the men’s side of the Wimbledon draw.
Having recovered a two-set deficit, Nadal looked set to turn the match entirely on its head and progress into a quarter-final tie against Marin Cilic. Yet Muller rallied in the final set, ultimately prevailing 6-3 6-4 3-6 4-6 15-13.
Nadal’s supremely confident showing at the French Open had raised expectations ahead of the grass-court Slam. Yet the Spaniard has rarely felt as comfortable as his competitors at the top of the world rankings on the green courts of Wimbledon, even though the King of Clay claimed two titles in London in 2008 and 2010. Those trophies came at the peak of his career, and so few expected him to find life as easy at Wimbledon 2017 as he did at Roland Garros.
A strong start
Nadal looked at the start of the tournament as if he was ready to pulverise all in his path, breezing through routine straight-set victories over John Millman, Donald Young and Karen Khachanov. The latter, a talented Russian with a bright future, managed to pose a few problems and did take Nadal to a tie-break, but ultimately Nadal was showing the kind of form that could only be stopped by one of the big guns, albeit not an injury-hit Andy Murray.
Therefore, Muller’s victory reverberated around the tennis world. The Luxembourger has an affinity for grass courts as it suits his playing style, and his only victory against Nadal in their previous six meetings came at Wimbledon in 2005. But the 16th seed had a disappointing record of 3-25 in meetings against top five players, with the statistics at Tennis Abstract showing that his most recent triumph against a leading player came in 2008.
It’s no choke
Nadal is not a player renowned for choking, with his mental fortitude one of the reasons why he has proven so consistently successful throughout his career. Rather, his surprise losses at Wimbledon are the result of a fearless opponent who does not expect to take down the Spaniard. Sports betting company Betway Insider interviewed with Andy Murray’s former psychologist to investigate the rationale behind choking in tennis. Choking is defined as mental stress compromising physical standards so that there is a decline in performance from a player who is talented enough and sufficiently motivated to achieve their goal.
Nadal is talented enough to achieve almost any goal in tennis, but he cannot be considered guilty of choking in the match against Muller. In fact, it may have been expected that Muller would buckle under the pressure having witnessed a two-set lead prised from his grasp by a resurgent Nadal. The underdog regained his composure in the epic fifth set in a refusal to go down without a fight. Muller then squandered four match points in the final set before eventually sealing a historic victory. The fearlessness that comes without the burden of expectation, in addition to a mighty and reliable serve, enabled Muller to stave off any worry about choking.
A history of shocks
Muller certainly seemed to be channelling the spirit of previous unlikely vanquishers of Nadal at Wimbledon. In 2015, Nadal fell to the acrobatic serve and volleying of Dustin Brown in four sets, a player who can confound spectators and opponents with his dazzling array of shots. Unfortunately for Nadal, Brown tends to blow more cold than hot but on that day Brown was hotter than he had ever been, as explained by Sky Sports.
A similar theme is found in Nadal’s 2012 defeat to Lukas Rosol in a five-set battle. Rosol’s aggressive groundstrokers paid dividends in unprecedented fashion. The Czech player has now slumped to 174 in the world rankings, but his victory over Nadal will be never be forgotten. Nadal’s defeat to Nick Kyrgios in 2014 sounds more acceptable, but at the time Kyrgios was an unproven youngster. In fact, statistics at Tennis Explorer show that Kyrgios was the most unfancied opponent in these three defeats, with the Australian starting the match at odds of 8/1 compared to Brown’s 5/1 and Rosol’s 28/5. However, this pales in comparison to Nadal’s loss to Steve Darcis in 2013, where the Belgian was available at odds of 19/1 yet came out victorious in straight sets.
Whilst Nadal would prefer not to have fallen to rank outsiders, it provides some context to the Muller match. There is nothing for the Spaniard to worry about, as he has always bounced back largely following such defeats. Also, sometimes even the top players just have to hold their hands up and admit that their opponent was playing out of their skin. Nadal has done tremendously to achieve such longevity in the world rankings, and the only Slam which he is expected to win is the French Open where he always plays with supreme confidence. This means the Spaniard can prepare for the US Open later this year knowing that anything he achieves is a bonus.