<
>

Rafael Nadal's Wimbledon exit sour, but it's not the story of his season

play
How did Muller manage to outlast Nadal? (0:56)

ESPN's Mark Donaldson breaks down Gilles Muller's keys to victory in his marathon match against Rafael Nadal. (0:56)

LONDON -- Two years ago, Rafael Nadal sat in the press room at the All England Club a beaten man. He spoke of the sadness of losing once again to a player ranked outside of the top 100. More telling, Nadal's message to the media was one of uncertainty about his future. He questioned whether he would ever return to the form that had made him a two-time Wimbledon winner.

He had long suffered from ailing knees, and the grass wasn't kind. That day against Dustin Brown wasn't just a loss. When Nadal was asked about retirement, it didn't seem like a ridiculous question.

On Manic Monday, Nadal was back in the press room following another early Wimbledon setback. He had just fallen in a 4-hour, 48-minute marathon that ended 15-13 in the fifth set against Gilles Muller in the longest match of the tournament. More disappointment, yes. But this time, the aftermath had a different vibe.

"I played better than other years," Nadal said. "At the same time, I was ready for important things, so I lost an opportunity."

Remember, this is a player who had lost inexplicably four times to opponents outside the top 100 at Wimbledon, an incredible string of futility for a player of his caliber.

Against Muller, it was not the result Nadal wanted, but in many ways, it wasn't a bad one, either, considering this is just the second time since 2012 that he has gone this far at Wimbledon.

"I lost in the fourth round," Nadal said. "That's not the result I was expecting. It's true that I played some good matches, but [at] the same time it's true that I didn't want to lose that match."

This wasn't a first- or second-round upset, though This wasn't a straight-sets blowout to a player many figured would give Nadal problems on grass anyway. This was a classic five-setter, where the No. 26 player beat the No. 2 player in the world.

Nadal has been nothing short of terrific this season. In January, he made a run to the Australian Open final, before falling in five sets to Roger Federer.

After that, he reached the final in Miami, then won the Monte-Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open and Madrid Open. Nadal has a 46 tour-level wins this season, the most on the ATP.

Stats aside, this also is about health. Nadal has been unaffected by any of the lingering knee and wrist injuries that have derailed so much of his play in the past couple of years. He's feeling good physically and mentally.

"I want to come back," Nadal said. "I want to play more times on Centre Court."

Unlike 2015, there was no reason to think this was anything more than it was -- a single setback.