LONDON • Rafael Nadal struggled to hide his disappointment after his attempt to reclaim the Wimbledon crown he last won seven years ago fell apart at the hands of Gilles Muller on Monday.
The 31-year-old rolled back the years in reaching the fourth round and seemed in the mood, and form, for a title assault at the All England Club just weeks after winning the French Open for a 10th time.
But left-handed Muller, seeded 16th, had other ideas. The Luxembourger edged an epic fifth set to win 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 after Nadal had staved off four match points in a thrilling climax.
Magnanimous as ever, 15-time Grand Slam champion Nadal made no excuses, admitting Muller was the better player.
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"I had my chances, and he had some mistakes, but not enough," said the Spaniard, who would have returned to No. 1 in the world rankings had he reached the final.
"It is true most of the time in the fifth set he played more aggressive and he played better than me. I played well for moments, but I was a lot of times fighting against the score, too many times in the fifth. The normal thing, when you are in the situation too many times, is finally you lose.
"It's not the result that I was expecting. I played better than other years, true. At the same time I was ready for important things, so I lost an opportunity."
Until Monday, Nadal had not lost a set in Grand Slam play since losing January's Australian Open final to Roger Federer. However, it was not to be his day.
He thumped his head on a ceiling while limbering up in a corridor before the start of play, appeared to turn his ankle slightly in the third set and was blinded by the sinking sun glinting against part of the Court One structure in the fifth set.
A mis-hit forehand gave Muller two match points in the 28th game of the fifth set, and there was no escape when another error off Nadal's trusty weapon ballooned over the baseline.
Muller, who had an elbow injury in 2013 that almost threatened to end his career, stood motionless for a few seconds, taking in the enormity of his victory.
"This is definitely the biggest victory since then, since I came back, especially at that stage of a Grand Slam, playing one of the guys who is dominating the tennis this year again," said the 34-year-old. "Definitely the biggest win."