Midway through the second week of Wimbledon, Gilles Muller is still in the running for the men’s singles title. A relative unknown at the beginning of this tournament, he is a tall man with a precise serve and a steady hand at the net. Decades ago, before the rise of the all-court game, this was a champion’s profile at the All England Club. That is no longer the case.
Muller enters Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup against Marin Cilic as a significant underdog, a 34-year-old journeyman who has only recently ascended to a career-best ranking of no. 26 in the world. He has made it past the fourth round of a major just once, at the 2008 U.S. Open. He’s 6-foot-4 and cracks a big, flat serve that skids across the turf. And on Monday he used that weapon to shock the tour by ousting Rafael Nadal 6–3, 6–4, 3–6, 4–6, 15–13 in a nearly-five-hour affair on a darkening Court 1.
A generation ago, in 2005, Muller knocked Nadal out of Wimbledon in the tournament’s second round. That was an entirely different time. Nadal was then just 19 and fresh off his first title at Roland Garros; Rafa was the same voracious competitor that he is now, but without the dozens of titles to bolster his confidence and lacking the all-around skills that make him lethal on non-clay courts today. But Muller has evolved as a player, too. While his profile has always been best suited to grass, he clearly understands his strengths better now than he did in the past. Or at least he did Monday.
Muller’s upset of Nadal — in which he rode his big game to a two-set lead, visibly tightened up, and then regained control during a long and dramatic fifth set — wasn’t novel by Wimbledon standards. Richard Krajicek beat Pete Sampras in 1996; Tomas Berdych downed Roger Federer in 2010; and Sam Querrey defeated Novak Djokovic last year. Yet Muller’s surprise triumph felt like a classic from another era. As the tour has modernized and become a homogenous baseline grind from January to November, the same players have largely been successful regardless of surface. This result was Wimbledon’s annual exception to that rule.
It seems fitting that as surface-related irregularities recede during the rest of the year, they remain at the tournament known for proudly holding onto its traditions. The small edge gained from a big serve at Wimbledon is one of the tournament’s diminished, but enduring trademarks. It’s a callback to a more varied, dynamic age of tennis.
There is no other weapon in tennis with the magnetism of a big serve. It is a pure display of force, the shot of the anxious player who wants to leave nothing to chance. It is the only shot that begins from a standstill, and the one most often measured by a radar gun. Other impressive displays of power require the right circumstances: a ball to the forehand side moving at the proper speed and height; a shot hit to the correct position at net to produce a highlight-worthy volley. The serve starts from nothing. It’s the game’s most relatable circumstance, and as such has been a longtime favorite of fans.
It’s also become something of a lost art. The world’s top players, even at Wimbledon, are no longer purely big servers. Perhaps that’s because the grass has slowed over the years, and now taller, less mobile players have been forced to play longer rallies. Or maybe it’s simply a result of this age. Those known solely for their serve haven’t had the skills on the ground necessary to upend all of the game’s elite; a member of the Big Four has won each of the last 14 Wimbledons.
But the speed of the slick grass surface allows taller, more aggressive players to thrive at The Championships more than they could elsewhere. Of the eight remaining players in the men’s draw, the lanky Muller is the shortest not named Federer, Djokovic, or Andy Murray.
In the quarterfinal against Cilic, the 6-foot-6 world no. 6 who has reached the round of eight in each of the last three Wimbledons, Muller will be hard-pressed to continue his run. He’ll be carrying around hours of court time on his back. And while Nadal had the pedigree to play through three more rounds against the highest-quality competition, Muller likely doesn’t.
On Monday, though, he provided a reminder of the potency of the tournament’s signature weapon. He started points with missiles that launched from nine feet in the sky. He hit kick serves and flat balls from the same, unreadable toss. He often hit tense, balky groundstrokes, but it didn’t matter. Eccentric, outlying, solitary strengths are usually lost among the deficiencies exposed by this generation’s transcendent talents. Against Nadal, Muller’s serve was enough to offset the tour’s balance of power.
Chances are that by the end of the tournament Muller and the rest of his towering cohort will fall victim to a remaining member of the Big Four. But at Wimbledon, some things, however briefly, seem to exist outside the construct of time. Muller’s win was meaningful, even if soon it won’t be.