Rafael Nadal wanted to win so badly that he couldn't

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The Spaniard lost to Gilles Muller, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13, in nearly five hours. (AP)

LONDON—Of the 398 points played between Gilles Muller and Rafael Nadal over four hours and 48 minutes on Monday, there were dozens in the fifth set alone that you could single out as especially brilliant or brave.

There was the high forehand volley winner that Nadal put away—and celebrated with a fist shot toward the sky—to save match point at 4-5. There was the winning backhand pass that Muller reflexed down the line to save break point at 9-9. There was the McEnroe-esque half-volley that Rafa delicately directed for a winner to hold at 9-10. There was the pressure-packed put-away volley winner that Muller knocked off to reach 0-30 in the 18th and final game, which essentially won him the match.

But the point that best represented this agonizing fourth-round epic was a miss. A bad miss. A painful miss. With Muller serving at 12-12, Nadal went up 15-30. The crowd, which had chanted his name between points, grew louder. Muller missed his first serve. Nadal move toward the baseline for the second one. When the ball spun tepidly to his backhand side, he swung ... and hit it into the middle of the net.

Throughout the day, Nadal had squandered countless chances on Muller’s serve; he would convert, in the day’s most important statistic, just two of 16 break points. Now, as he watched his backhand fall into the net, Rafa couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed his head and nearly fell to his knees.

Muller’s 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 victory was his second over Nadal at Wimbledon; the first came in 2005, when Rafa was 19. It means that Nadal has now gone six years without making it past the fourth round at a tournament where he once reached the final five straight times.

Of those recent early defeats here, this one was the closest and hardest fought, it came against the most skilled grass-court opponent and it happened a few weeks after Rafa had won his 10th title at Roland Garros. But if you thought these positives would leave Nadal feeling satisfied, or at least philosophical, afterward, think again. The only way to describe him was bitterly disappointed. And he was unwilling to accept any of the rationalizations the press tried to offer.

“When you look back,” a reporter asked, “do you perhaps feel this is a tournament where you had a very good result on grass that you haven’t had in a few years?”

“I lost in the fourth round,” Nadal said, throwing his hands in the air and letting them land heavily on the desk in front of him. “That’s not the result I was expecting. It’s true that I played some good matches, but the same time is true that I didn’t want to lose that match. So is tough to analyze in a positive way right now.

“Yeah, I won matches. I play better than other years, true. At the same time I was ready for important things, so I lost an opportunity.”

Nadal wasn’t in the mood to be charitable to himself, but it should be said that his opponent was one of the most dangerous he could have faced in the round of 16. At 34, Muller may be playing the best tennis of his career. Last month, he won a grass-court title in Holland and reached the semis at Queen’s. He also won a tournament on hard courts early in the year, and even reached a final on clay.

Against Nadal, Muller couldn’t have played much better or smarter tennis. He hit 30 aces and 95 winners, saved 14 of 16 break points and won 59 of 83 points at the net. He never let Nadal get comfortable, even during baseline rallies. And in the fifth set he never cracked, despite immense pressure from Rafa and the crowd. In the end, Muller said he was helped by the fact that he thought the match might be called for darkness.

“In my head I was thinking we have to finish this now or otherwise we’re going to come back tomorrow,” Muller said. “I knew it was going to be maybe another 10, 15 minutes more, maximum.

“I just said to myself, ‘Give it a shot.’”

Nadal had 23 aces, and hit 77 winners against just 17 errors. But his winner-to-error ratio was, if anything, a testament to Wimbledon’s generous scoring judges. Rafa himself admitted that this “probably was not my best match,” and despite his comeback, he never seemed to find a groove for any extended time—he won by scrapping for whatever he could get. The problem, according to Nadal, was that he was always behind. He wasn’t just fighting his opponent; he was fighting the score.

“I had my chance in the beginning,” Rafa said, “Is stupid to say now, but maybe if I had that break at the first set, third or fourth game, maybe we are in a completely different situation. But I didn’t.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Rafa indulge in the kind of second-guessing and wishful thinking that so many of the rest of us do after a loss. He may not have ever heard himself do it, either, considering that he called that kind of talk “stupid.” But that’s how much he wanted this one.

Nadal admitted that he did well to come back, but that his crucial mistake at the end was coming to the net on his first break point at 9-9, the one where Muller passed him. (Personally, I think the mistake wasn’t that he came to the net, but that he hit a crosscourt approach that left half of the court open.)

Barring the French Open that he won in 2017, and the one where he withdrew, in 2016, this is the fifth straight major where Nadal has lost in a five-setter, dating back to the 2015 U.S. Open. (I won’t torture Rafa fans by naming the specific matches.) I said before Wimbledon began that if Rafa could survive an early challenge, the way he did when he used to go deep here, he could go all the way. And judging by his reaction to this defeat—“I was ready for important things”—Rafa felt the same way.

This season has been an excellent one for Nadal by any measure, and maybe in a week he’ll realize that and feel a little less disconsolate about this loss. Still, away from clay, a tiny but crucial difference still remains between the Rafa of his prime years and the Rafa of today. These days he makes stirring comebacks, fires up the crowd, he plays well enough to catch up, but he can’t quite uncork the shot he needs, on the point he needs, to get over the hump and close it out.

Nadal has always won because he wanted it so badly; on Monday, he wanted it so badly that he couldn’t win. 


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