It wasn’t that Gilles Muller hadn’t defeated Rafael Nadal before. But it was the wild contrast in the trajectories the two careers traced since that second-round meeting at Wimbledon 2005 that made Monday’s upset more memorable. While Nadal added 14 Grand Slam titles to his first French Open triumph that summer, Muller won his first two ATP titles this year — his 16th year on Tour.
Muller, 34, continued his breakthrough season with a 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 win over Nadal. “Definitely the biggest win… especially at that stage of a Grand Slam, playing one of the guys who is dominating tennis this year again,” said the man from Luxembourg — a country so small you could walk from its capital to Belgium in less than the four hours and 47 minutes it took Muller to overcome the world No. 2. For the longest of times, Muller seemed destined to retire as one of the many talented yet forgettable journeymen who fill up draws, pick up the prize money and move on to the next tournament. Only worse, for the former junior world No. 1 thought he wouldn’t have a single Tour title to show for.
“For the past two or three years, it was probably my biggest goal to win a title,” a tearful Muller said after winning the title in Sydney this January. “I always dreamed of that… So I was very scared and worried that I was going to be one of those players who never win a title.”
A career-threatening elbow injury in 2013 added to his fears. In hindsight however, Muller believes the six-month layoff helped put together his breakthrough run. “I couldn’t touch a racquet. Because I had problems with my elbow I couldn’t play tennis but I was able to work on other things,” Muller told reporters at Queen’s last month. “I think I’m now getting paid [off] for that. I was probably never able to work that hard for that long, because as you know, tennis season starts in January, and ends in November, so you never have six months where you’re able to work.”
Coach Alexandre Lisiecki, who runs a training academy called LETZServ in Luxembourg, says Muller took his ranking from 362 to a career-best 26 because he had the right vision and motivation.
“He is a total family man,” Lisiecki told The Indian Express. “He got married (in 2010) and has two boys (Lins and Nels) and could have called it a day. But he believes now he has to keep going so his kids can watch him play big events. So he decided to bring about big changes in his diet, training, conditioning and now has achieved his career high ranking.”
Muller has sacrificed dairy products, bread and red meat, and travels with a nutritionist who keeps an eye on the ingredients. In addition to looking after his diet, he has switched his focus from on-court training to physical workout and conditioning. According to Lisiecki, tennis practice takes an hour-and-a-half to two hours daily while functional movement, warm- ups and cool downs take about two-and-a-half to three hours. There there’s the mental training and flexibility drills.
Muller — one of the 21 30-year-olds in the men’s top 40 — is thus part of the trend of older players taking better care of their bodies on the Tour. What sets him apart, however, is that he is a proponent of the dying art of serve-and-volley. Yes, the Wimbledon grass has slowed down since the switch from the 70/30 mix of rye and creeping red fescue to 100% perennial rye grass in 2001. But Muller has shown that is still quick enough, provided one is adventurous.
During his run to the quarterfinals, Muller has rushed in after a quarter of his serves, winning 122 of 158 attempts — a success rate of 77 per cent. Against Nadal, Muller tried serve-and-volley 73 times and won 52 points. Mind you, this wasn’t the baseline-hugging Nadal one is used to seeing on the clay of Roland Garros. The Spaniard himself pushed the ball to the corner, rushed to the net and put the volley away 33 times. But he stood too far back on both serves while returning, making it easier for Muller to come in and kill off points. The high risk-high reward strategy meant that 78 per cent of rallies on Monday consisted of 0-4 shots.
“It didn’t come naturally to him,” says Lisieicki. “It was a conscious decision to take this approach to disrupt opponents, because players are not used to good serve-and-volleying. And his consistency is a result of years of honing the skill.”
In only his second Grand Slam quarterfinal, Muller will take on former US Open winner Marin Cilic on Wednesday. The world No. 6 defeated Muller when the two met in last month’s Queen’s Club semifinal. Muller’s camp realises recovery is key, and the player has spent more hours in ice baths and massage sessions than on the court since the match against Nadal.
“He knows that he has achieved many targets, and nobody is going to forget the match against Rafa anytime soon,” says Lisiecki. “I would say the target is to keep getting higher, better. Muller knows that, but right now, he just wants to enjoy the game.”