Rafael Nadal

2-time champ Nadal loses 15-13 in 5th set, eliminated at Wimbledon

usa-rafael-nadal-wimbledon.jpg
USA Today Images

2-time champ Nadal loses 15-13 in 5th set, eliminated at Wimbledon

LONDON — First, Rafael Nadal erased a two-set deficit. Then, he erased four match points. Nadal could not, however, erase the fifth.

After digging himself out of difficult situations over and over during the course of a riveting encounter that lasted more than 4 hours, Nadal suddenly faltered, getting broken in the last game and losing to 16th-seeded Gilles Muller of Luxembourg 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 15-13 in the fourth round of Wimbledon on Monday.

The surprising defeat extended Nadal's drought without a quarterfinal berth at the All England Club to six years.

He has won two of his 15 Grand Slam championships at Wimbledon, and played in the final three other times, most recently in 2011. But since then, Nadal's exits at the All England Club have come in the first round (2013), second round (2012, 2015) and fourth round (2014, 2017).

All of those losses, except Monday's, came against men ranked 100th or worse. The 34-year-old Muller is not exactly a giant-killer: He had lost 22 consecutive matches against foes ranked in the top five. And he'd only reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal once before, at the 2008 U.S. Open.

But Muller managed to pull this one out, unfazed but allowing opportunities to pass him by.

Nadal served from behind throughout the final set and was twice a point from losing in its 10th game. He again was twice a point from losing in the 20th. Only when Muller got yet another chance to end it did he, when Nadal got broken by pushing a forehand long.

Nadal entered the match having won 28 consecutive completed sets in Grand Slam play, equaling his personal best and a total exceeded only twice in the Open era. He arrived at the All England Club coming off his record 10th French Open championship, and 15th major trophy overall, and seemed primed to be a factor again at the grass-court tournament.

Muller, though, presented problems. He already owned one victory over Nadal at Wimbledon, back in the second round in 2005.

That was before Nadal figured out how to bring his talents to bear on grass. From 2006-11, Nadal reached the final in five consecutive appearances at Wimbledon (he missed it in 2009 because of bad knees), winning titles in 2008 and 2010.

Muller's next opponent will be 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic.

Other men's quarterfinals matchups are defending champion Andy Murray vs. 24th-seeded Sam Querrey of the U.S., seven-time champion Roger Federer vs. 2016 runner-up Milos Raonic and 2010 runner-up Tomas Berdych against Novak Djokovic or Adrian Mannarino. The Djokovic-Mannarino fourth-rounder was postponed until Tuesday; it had been scheduled to be played on No. 1 Court after Nadal-Muller concluded.

But that duo played on and on, past 8 p.m., when the descending sun's reflection off a part of No. 1 Court bothered Nadal so much that he held up the action in the fifth set. Chair umpire Ali Nili asked spectators to stand in the way and block the rays. A few games later, Nili told fans to stop doing the wave so play could resume, suggesting they wait for the next changeover to resume.

Despite playing as cleanly as can be in the opening set -- zero unforced errors -- Nadal could not solve Muller's big serves and aggressive forays to the net for crisp volleys. There was more of the same in the second set. After only 75 minutes of play, Nadal appeared to be in serious trouble.

But Nadal adjusted. He stepped a little farther behind the baseline to give himself more time to react to Muller's power. He also began to have more success with his own serve, winding up with 23 aces, an unusually high total for Nadal and only seven fewer than Muller.

Still, things were not looking good when Nadal served while down 5-4 in the fifth set. He double-faulted to trail 15-40. On Muller's initial match point, Nadal delivered a 116 mph (187 kph) ace to a corner. On the next, at 30-40, he spun a 103 mph (166 kph) second serve at an extreme angle, drawing a forehand return into the net. Nadal's four-point, game-ending, match-saving flourish ended with a 120 mph (194 kph) service winner and a 121 mph ace. He celebrated with three shouts of "Come on!" and some violent fist pumps. In the stands, his girlfriend stood and punched the air and yelled, "Si!"

The match, of course, was not yet over. It would continue for 18 more games and 1 more hours.

Muller's next two match points came when he had a 10-9 lead. Nadal deleted the first with a volley winner, and the second disappeared when Muller shanked a return of a 94 mph (152 kph) second serve.

The fifth set alone lasted 2 hours, 15 minutes, and Nadal could not manage to complete what would have been his fourth career comeback from two sets down -- and first in a decade.

Instead, it was Muller who was able to enjoy a win that seemed to be slipping away.

Rafael Nadal routs Stan Wawrinka for record 10th French Open title

usa-rafael-nadal-tennis.jpg
USA Today Images

Rafael Nadal routs Stan Wawrinka for record 10th French Open title

PARIS -- As he sat in front of a TV to watch last year's French Open final, sidelined by an injured left wrist, Rafael Nadal had no way to know for sure, of course, that he would return to the height of his powers.

For the second time in a row, the most important match at the most important clay-court tournament was being contested without him. As the 2017 edition at Roland Garros began, Nadal's drought without a Grand Slam title was stretching to three full years.

"It was difficult," said Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni. "We were asking ourselves whether he would be able achieve this one more time."

Turned out he could, and he did, as masterful as at any time. Overwhelmingly good from start to finish in Sunday's final, and for the entire two weeks, Nadal won his record 10th French Open title with a 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 victory over 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka.

Call it a Perfect 10.

Or as the Nadals preferred: La Decima, Spanish for "The Tenth."

"I play my best at all events, but the feeling here is impossible to describe. It's impossible to compare it to another place," Nadal said. "The nerves, the adrenaline, I feel on the court are impossible to compare to another feeling. This is the most important event in my career."

Not only did Nadal win every set he played in the tournament, he dropped a total of only 35 games, the second fewest by any man on the way to any title at a major tournament with all matches being best-of-five-sets in the Open era, which dates to 1968.

No other man or woman has won 10 championships at the same major in the Open era. Along with improving to 10-0 in finals at Roland Garros, Nadal increased his haul to 15 Grand Slam trophies, breaking a tie with Pete Sampras for second place in the history of men's tennis, behind only rival Roger Federer's 18.

It marked a stirring return to the top for Nadal at the site he loves the most: He is 79-2 at the French Open, 102-2 in all best-of-five-set matches on clay.

"He's playing the best he's ever played. That's for sure," said Wawrinka, who had won 11 matches in a row on clay. "But not only here."

True. Nadal leads the tour with four titles and 43 match wins this season and will rise to No. 2 in the ATP rankings Monday.

Last year in Paris, Nadal withdrew before the third round, making the announcement while wearing a blue brace on his left wrist and resignation of his face. He couldn't bring himself to watch much of the rest of the 2016 French Open, he said, other than some doubles matches involving a good pal, and the singles final.

Finally back to full strength in the offseason, Nadal returned to work, reconstructing his forehand and redoubling his efforts to be elite.

"Back in November, when we were together, I told him he needed to get his forehand back, to improve a bit his serve, to put on a champion's face again," said Uncle Toni, gripping his chin for emphasis, "and to become the No. 1 on clay again. And here, we had the confirmation."

Nadal is no longer the 19-year-old who won the French Open in his debut in 2005, wearing long white pirate shorts, his flowing locks wrapped by a white headband, his sleeveless shirt revealing bulging biceps. Now he is 31, the shorts are shorter, the hair more closely cropped, the shirt has sleeves. His game? Better.

Nadal won again at Roland Garros in 2006, 2007 and 2008. After a fourth-round loss on bad knees in 2009, he grabbed five consecutive French Opens 2010-14. A quarterfinal loss in 2015 ended that run, and then came last year's injury.

On Sunday, the conditions were exactly to the liking of a guy who grew up on the island of Mallorca and still enjoys fishing in his down time. The sun was shining, there was barely a trace of cloud in the bright blue sky and the temperature was about 85 degrees (30 Celsius).

Wawrinka insisted a five-set semifinal win Friday over No. 1-ranked Andy Murray did not take anything out of him physically. The problem against Nadal, Wawrinka said, was more mental.

"He puts this doubt in your head when you play against him," said Wawrinka, who had been 3-0 in Grand Slam finals, including a victory over Nadal at the 2014 Australian Open.

After netting a forehand in the second set, Wawrinka pounded his racket on his head several times. Later, he spiked that piece of equipment, then mangled it, breaking it over his knee.

Nadal has that way of wearing down opponents. On this day, he was terrific. He won all 12 service games, made a mere 12 unforced errors and won 94 total points to Wawrinka's 57.

One area of significant improvement for Nadal is his serve. Once passable, it is now potent. Confronted with the match's first break point, 10 minutes in, he solved the predicament this way: service winner at 107 mph (173 kph), ace at 117 mph (189 kph), service winner at 120 mph (194 kph). That would be Wawrinka's lone break chance.

When the ball was in play, Nadal barely missed at all. His groundstrokes were delivered with loud, long grunts, echoing in the otherwise mostly silent Court Philippe Chatrier, filled with 15,000 or so souls too rapt to speak. They did let out a burst of claps and roars in the second set on one particularly exquisite display: Nadal sprinted to his left to chase Wawrinka's cross-court backhand wide of the doubles alley and whipped a forehand that curved around the net post and landed near a line for a winner.

Even Wawrinka applauded that one.

"Nothing to say about today," Wawrinka told Nadal during the trophy ceremony. "You were too good."

Indeed. Good as ever.

Roger Federer bests Rafael Nadal in epic Australian Open final for 18th Grand Slam

ap-roger-federer-aussie-open.jpg
AP Images

Roger Federer bests Rafael Nadal in epic Australian Open final for 18th Grand Slam

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Roger Federer won his 18th Grand Slam title and put some extra distance on the all-time list between himself and Rafael Nadal, the man he beat in a vintage five-set final at the Australian Open final.

It was the 35-year-old Federer's first major title since Wimbledon in 2012, his first in Australia since 2010, and it reversed the status quo against his nemesis, Nadal.

"Against Rafa it's always epic," Federer said after Sunday's 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory. "This one means a lot to me because he's caused me problems over the years."

Federer had lost six of the previous eight Grand Slam finals he'd played against Nadal and was 11-23 in their career meetings. He also hadn't beaten the left-handed Spaniard for a major championship since Wimbledon in 2007.

"It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him," Federer said. "It's super sweet, because I haven't beaten him a Grand Slam final for a long time now."

With big wins come big celebrations, Federer said. "We're going to party like rock stars tonight."

Federer had lost three major finals since winnings his 17th, and by winning in Melbourne, he became the oldest man since Ken Rosewall in 1972 to win a slam.

Both players were returning from extended layoffs -- Federer for six months after Wimbledon with an injured left knee; Nadal for a couple of months with an injured left wrist -- and were seeded 17th and ninth, respectively.

"I wasn't sure I was going to make it here but here I am -- we made it," Federer said after accepting the trophy from Australian great Rod Laver. "Tennis is a tough sport, there's no draws. If there was going to be one, I would have been happy to have it tonight and share it with Rafa, really."

After twice coming back from a set down, Nadal was a break up in the fifth until Federer regained control and ultimately became the first man in the Open era to win three of the Grand Slam events at least five times (7 Wimbledon, 5 U.S. Open, 5 Australian Open and 1 French Open title).

Nadal remains equal second with Pete Sampras on the all-time list with 14 -- and none since the 2014 French Open.

After four sets where the momentum alternately swung, the fifth had all the tension and drama that these two players are famous for.

Nadal went up an early break and it seemed as if the injury time-out Federer needed for his right leg in between sets may have been an indicator of things to come.

But the Swiss star rallied, broke back and took control in a period when he won 10 straight points.

Nadal saved three break points in the eighth game but lost momentum again when Federer finished off a 26-shot rally -- the longest of the match -- with a forehand winner down the line.

Federer got the pivotal break later that game for 5-3, but Nadal made him work for the very last point.

Serving for the match, and after saving two break points, Federer was called for a double-fault at deuce. He challenged the out call on his second serve, however, and the call was overturned, allowing him to again regain the tempo.

After hitting a forehand crosscourt winner on his second match point, his celebrations were delayed when Nadal challenged the call. Federer watched the replay, and leaped for joy when it showed his last shot was in. His 100th match at the Australian Open ended with his fifth title at Melbourne Park.

"Congratulation to Roger ... Just amazing, the way he's playing after such a long time of him not being on the tour," Nadal said. "For sure, you have been working a lot to make that happen."

Nadal spent two months recovering from a left wrist injury before heading to Brisbane for a warmup tournament. He had no big expectations in Australia.

"I had some hard time not being able to compete in full condition. ... some injuries, well not new for me," Nadal said. "I fight a lot these two weeks. Today, a great match, probably Roger deserved it a little bit more than me."

No two players had met more often in Grand Slam finals in the Open era, and Nadal had previously dominated. But they hadn't met in a major final in six years.

Three months ago, they were both on breaks when Federer joined Nadal in Mallorca for the opening of the Spaniard's tennis academy and the pair joked about ever being able to contend for majors again.

Yet here they were, the first Grand Slam tournament of the season, renewing the classic rivalry that saw them dominate tennis a decade ago.

The long-odds final -- No. 9 against No. 17 -- unfolded after six-time champion Novak Djokovic was upset by No. 117-ranked Denis Istomin in the second round and top-ranked Andy Murray, a five-time losing finalist in Australia, went out in the fourth round to 50th-ranked Mischa Zverev.

Federer beat Zverev in the quarterfinals and U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka in an all-Swiss semifinal to reach the championship match.

His championship victory capped a remarkable weekend for 30-somethings -- all four singles finalists were 30 or older -- after Serena Williams beat her sister Venus Williams in the women's final to capture her Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam title.