Sporting Life

Big man from small nation crafts epic with Nadal

Rafael Nadal's face is a changing landscape of emotion. Gilles Muller has the dead eyes of an assassin. Nadal's headband is pushed up and he looks dishevelled. Muller has less hair on his head than grass on the baseline. Nadal is all twitches and tics. Muller is 34 and can't afford a single extra movement. It's midway through the fifth set and the match is where the finest contests always travel to. A place of suffering.

The most searing match last week was Donna Vekic v Johanna Konta, whose third set was like a brilliant yet agonising opera which ended at 10-8. Every error carried a harsher cost. Every risk was carefully weighed. Every nerve stretched like a tightrope wire. Their match was exquisite because it was excruciating. Who will break first (not serve but mentally)? How long will they not break?

Athletes must feel pain for us to find pleasure. This is why people stay up till 4am in Singapore to watch Nadal-Muller push each other to an emotional limit. In a fifth set of 135 minutes, 76 winners, 63 net points and more tension than you find outside maternity wards, they create dazzle even as they can barely think straight.

The unlikely hero of the night is a large man of soft hands from a small nation. Nadal used to be the best player in the world, but Muller is the greatest player in the history of Luxembourg. It is a nation with roughly 600,000 people and 70-odd castles and clearly he knows a little about fortifications.

Muller, who won his first title finally in January, got his trophy that day from Rod Laver, was watched by his kids, wept understandably and described it all as "a movie". Then he won a second title on grass in June. Now this July drama. Clearly he enjoys sequels.

Rafael Nadal showing his frustration after losing a point to Luxembourg's Gilles Muller during their fourth round match at Wimbledon.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

His profile in the official portal of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg states that "his strong point is balls which come in at an extraordinary high speed". Indeed. His 34-year-old knees bend so well we might presume he is a regular churchgoer and he plucks volleys out of the air with the deftness of a juggler. As for the violent percussiveness of his serve, it may be noted that he loves rock music.

Nadal fights, Muller scraps. The first is often celebrated, the second we've underrated. Even journeymen have heart. Nadal will run further - 3,645.1m to 3,181m - and he will win more points - 198 to 191 - but he won't win the one point he needs in the fifth. The break point.

Later, in one of the Luxembourg newspapers, the headline in German roughly reads: "That was pretty cool." It was, too, because Muller wouldn't bend to the logic of sport. There were perfectly good reasons why he should have lost but he remained unconvinced.

First, the format was best-of-five sets which is usually long enough for a struggling superior player to regroup and usually too long for a lesser player to hold a high standard. Second, the match went to the fifth set, which suits Nadal for he's won 19 of them (Muller 12) and owns the French Open and the British crowd.

Third, big servers don't mind tie-breakers but here the fifth set doesn't have one but stretches on, which suits Nadal. Fourth, they're playing for a quarter-final place in a Grand Slam, where Muller has been once and Nadal 31 times.

Nine times out of 10, Nadal wins this match. This is the 10th time. The time we don't want (we like our favourites) and yet the time we wait for (we crave surprise).

Last week when Vekic and Konta finished, the former cried, the latter hugged her. On Monday, a long match of short rallies ended as gracefully. Nadal waited as the victor packed his bag, solemn and seemly, and then signed autographs. Muller did not leap about wildly but wore his win without fuss. He did not even smile initially, but the ghost of Josy Barthel must have been grinning.

In a fifth set of 135 minutes, 76 winners, 63 net points and more tension than you find outside maternity wards, they create dazzle even as they can barely think straight.

Sixty-five years ago at the Helsinki Olympics, the favourites for the 1,500m gold - as The Complete Book Of The Olympics states - were Roger Bannister and the German Werner Lueg. But a lesser-known runner, Barthel, won gold by less than two feet and then sat in the infield, first dazed and then weeping.

"For me, as for the public, it was a surprise," said Barthel.

Of course, he came from Luxembourg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'Big man from small nation crafts epic with Nadal'. Print Edition | Subscribe