Boosters of the surging Gilles Muller are astutely aware of the many peaks and valleys he has experienced over a long and remarkable career. This distinguished left-hander from Luxembourg turned professional back in 2001. He concluded his first year among the sport’s top 100 at No. 68 in 2004. A year later, Muller upended Rafael Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon, only a few weeks after the Spaniard secured his first French Open title. The 6’4” Muller struck down No. 4 seed Andy Roddick in the first round at the U.S. Open later that summer in three consecutive tie-breaks when he was still only 22, but those in the know realized how formidable he could be with his finely tuned serve-and-volley southpaw style. Muller finished that 2005 campaign surprisingly low at No. 80 in the world because his results were uneven; he won 21 matches but lost 23.
His next five seasons were disrupted often by injuries, and the best he fared at the end of one of those years was No. 99 in 2008, when he had his longest ever run at a major to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open as a qualifier. In 2011 and 2012, he raised the bar once more, moving to No. 54 at the end of the former season (when he got to the round of 16 at the U.S. Open) and concluding the latter at No. 68. Heading into 2013, Muller seemed likely to make a big impression, but his season came to an end after the French Open when a severe elbow injury threatened to end his career. A deeply concerned Muller fell to No. 366 by the end of 2013 after his abbreviated campaign.
But now that alarming stretch in his career seems long behind him. Several days after we spoke by telephone the week before last, Muller moved to a career high of No. 34 in the world. He had just beaten Grigor Dimitrov the day before in Rotterdam, and would lose in the quarterfinals there to Stan Wawrinka. His level of play this year has been exemplary, including a round of 16 showing at the Australian Open (which included a big win over John Isner), a semifinal appearance in Sydney and a quarterfinal finish in Chennai. A primary reason why he finds himself performing so successfully is because he made the largest leap of any player ranked among the top 100 on the Emirates ATP Rankings in 2014, rising from that disconcerting location at No. 366 all the way back to No. 47, finishing for the first time inside the top 50 at the end of a season.
At the outset of the interview, Muller explained the complexities of his somewhat frightening situation with the elbow in the middle of 2013. I asked him how much apprehension he had about his career possibly coming to a saddening conclusion as doctors examined his elbow in search of the right remedy. He responded, “It crossed my mind that it could be over, but the worst thing was that for a long time no one could really find exactly what it was. For three or four months no one could help me exactly, but I was working really hard off the court physically so part of my mind was sure I was going to come back.”
As Muller recollects, “I went to a number of doctors. There was a bone bruise in my elbow so most of the doctors were focusing on that. When the bone bruise went away I started practicing again and then the pain came back right away. I was sent to Holland to see a specialist in elbows and she found out what it was. Then I had some rehab with the physiotherapist in Holland. That helped me a lot and then after a couple of months working with them I was back on track.”
Having been away from the tour for more than seven months, Muller returned in 2014 with reasonable expectations. But progress was swifter than he anticipated. And yet, he diligently paid his dues, competing in seven Challenger events across the year, winning no fewer than five of them. In many ways, that was the key to his sharp elevation in the rankings.
“The speed of it surprised me the most, “he reflects now. “ My goal was to finish the year in the top 100 but I was already in the top 80 or better after Wimbledon last year. You can see in the big tournaments how many times the top guys play a guy ranked No. 150 and they are losing sets or going five sets or even getting beaten sometimes by those players. To me the difference in the Challenger tournaments is not really the tennis, but maybe mental. The top guys focus 110% from the first point until the last point in a match. Their intensity stays high during the whole match and the whole tournament. These guys in the Challengers are able to produce very good tennis for a match or two matches, but maybe can’t keep it up for the whole tournament. They can play out of their mind in the second round but then get killed in the next round because their intensity and focus goes down. I was happy I did well in those Challengers. If you win five tournaments and as many matches as I did last year, it shows you are very consistent and have what it takes to be competing on the top.”
Regardless of how much Muller benefitted from the winning platform he built for himself on the Challenger level, there can be no doubt that it led to the superb start he made in 2015, including the win over Isner in Melbourne and a strong showing against the eventual champion Djokovic. The world No. 1 had to work hard, play well under pressure and remain ceaselessly alert to overcome Muller 6-4, 7-5, 7-5. Now that he has made it inside the top 35 at the age of 31—exhibiting so much self-assurance in the process—has Muller’s outlook been decidedly altered? Will that carry him to even higher destinations this year and perhaps beyond?
“I don’t want to set any limits for myself and I don’t want to talk numbers,” he replies. “You are putting yourself under a lot of pressure if you say you want to be in the top 20 or the top 15. I know now I can beat these guys in the Grand Slams, and if you can do that you could be up there for sure. The year started well for me, but it is definitely not over yet. I am in the top 40 for the first time but compared to maybe when I was younger, in my mind it is not a big deal. I am just happy at the moment but I want to work harder. It motivates me to get even better.”
None of the top players enjoy the notion of facing Muller, especially on medium to fast courts. His lefty attacking game can be burdensome to players of every conceivable stripe or style; he comes at them forcefully, judiciously, and unswervingly. How does Muller feel about having so many colleagues uneasy when confronting him?
He responds, “The serve-and-volley game is not played that much anymore. Feliciano Lopez is also having a lot of success with that style. The players are just not used to that anymore. Most of the players play from the baseline and they hit hard and are physically very strong, doing a lot of running and having a lot of long rallies. When they play a guy like me it is difficult for them to adapt. Especially now that my elbow is fine and I have found a good rhythm on my serve, it is tough for these guys to break me. I have worked hard on my volleys, and combining my serve with the volley. That is a tough combination for those guys to crack for sure.”
Playing with the right brand of aggression and sound execution is paramount for Muller as he strives to continue climbing even higher in the rankings. But there is also no substitute for his experience in making smart decisions during crucial moments of hard fought matches. How does he view the recent trend of players performing near peak efficiency in their early thirties? I mentioned to Muller that Stefan Edberg retired at 30, Pete Sampras played his last match at 31, and many of the most revered players ten to twenty years ago seemed to automatically assume their best work was behind them as soon as they moved into their thirties.
Muller says, “You talk about Edberg and it reminds me of the era when Becker was winning Wimbledon at 17 [in 1985] and Chang won the French Open at 17  and Edberg was under 20 when he won his first Grand Slam title [ at 19 in the 1985 Australian Open]. Those guys were at a high level pretty early and they stayed there a long time. Now you look at guys like Dimitrov and he made it to the top ten last year [at 22] but he didn’t get there at 18. Nowadays people don’t get near to the top when they are 18 or 19, with a few exceptions like Kyrgios. The game is so physical now. Maybe guys now get near the top later and stay longer. Talking for myself, I got to the top 100 when I was 21 for the first time and I also lost a lot of time to be honest with injuries, so maybe my body is not as fatigued as some other players who played straight through for eight or nine years.”
Almost without exception, a player like Muller—who excels on serve and by probing forward and polishing points off persistently at the net –will have the outcomes in many of his matches hinge on success or failure in the tie-break. Does he have a certain philosophy about how to approach the tie-breaks in terms of mindset or strategy? He answers, “I have played a lot of tie-breaks and my record is pretty good, but this stuff can change pretty quickly. The tie-break is a little bit like a lottery sometimes. You can be lucky at some points and also unlucky at other times, but the main key for me this year is I have kept very calm at these moments. The only thing I am looking for is to play the right way and stay aggressive. I think that puts a lot of pressure on players if they know that maybe I am going to come in after my return, or maybe I am going to go for a winner after my return. So they never know what is coming. Tie-breaks are a very tricky thing but if you look at the big servers maybe they are used to playing more tie-breaks and that is why they also have a better record.”
For Muller, of course, many authorities would contend that he has a distinct advantage as a lefty starting off serving to the ad court and having the opportunity on critical 6-5 or 5-6 points to be serving to that side. He is not, however, convinced about that notion. “People say lefties have an advantage in the tie-break but I am not so sure. Maybe because we start on the ad side that is an advantage, but then it is also a disadvantage when you are serving at 5-5 or 6-6 to the deuce side.”
Having said that, when he addresses the enduring excellence of the “Big Four” featuring Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray, Muller has no ambiguity; he admires them all immensely. And yet, he no longer is in awe of the foremost competitors. Although he is 0-5 in his career against Federer, 1-3 versus Nadal, 0-2 with Murray and 0-1 against Djokovic, Muller does not put it past himself to beat one of the superstars on any given day in the near future.
“Last year, “Muller points out, “I played Roger twice and I kind of got killed because I hadn’t played a guy like that for a long time, so I thought I had to play unbelievable tennis just to have a chance. But now that I have played these guys more often it gives me more confidence and makes me more comfortable against them. I thought in Melbourne against Novak that basically the first two sets he didn’t do anything special to break me. In the third set I had some break points and I was a little unlucky. Maybe if I break there I win the set. So I think I am starting to believe I can beat these guys. To be honest, for a long time I was thinking these guys were just too far ahead and I had no chance against them. Now, I am not going to say I am going to beat them ten out of ten, but in one match for sure I have got a chance.”
The view here is that the next couple of years are pivotal for Muller. He turns 32 in May. The closer he gets to 35, the more difficult it is going to be to maintain his current standards. Yet he wisely is not consumed with the need to strike now while his game is functioning so effectively. Muller says, “No, I don’t put too much pressure on myself. One of my goals is to play another Olympics next year and then after that I will see. There are no plans in my head with a date that I will stop. I don’t think like I have to play unbelievable up to a certain time just to make enough money. I am happy I am at this level. I am in my best shape physically ever and in my best shape ever mentally. I am playing some of my best tennis ever. A year-and-a-half ago I was not sure I would ever be on the court again. So I am just trying to enjoy this and make the most of it, trying to improve every day and see where it takes me.”
Muller is married and has two young sons, ages two and three years old. The sports world is more than familiar with Federer and his wife travelling regularly with their two sets of twins, and surely Djokovic will be bringing his wife and son to tournaments across the globe in the near future. There are no financial issues for players of their exalted status regarding family travel plans. For Muller, there are indeed fiscal considerations.
“So far,” he responds, “I haven’t had them with me once. For financial reasons it was not easy for me to bring them with me when they were so young. It would have been a lot of hard work for my wife so we decided not to, but this year I am going to take them with me a couple of weeks to the tournaments. My wife is also working part time at a bank in Luxembourg. My oldest son is going to school now so he cannot be away every week. But this year I think the kids at their ages are going to be able to sit quiet for an hour-and-a-half or two hours and that makes it easier.”
Coming into the 2015 season, Muller had made $2,435,296 in prize money for his career, yet his expenses over the years have not been insubstantial. Has he set himself up for life with what he has earned? Muller replies, “Obviously I have to take responsibilities with the family now but the moment you start focusing too much on the money it makes it too hard to compete. I am not really going to think too much about money. At the moment, I survive without having to make too many sacrifices: let’s put it that way. When I was injured, I used that time off the court to prepare a few things for the future. So I have a company back home where we are supporting other sportsmen in Luxembourg. We are trying to professionalize a lot of things to help youngsters to get to the top level. Also, I have quite a big name in tennis in Luxembourg so I think I can do things in that direction in the future. Right now I am working hard at my tennis and I don’t have to worry too much about the money with the ranking that I have. I am aware that I can’t enjoy the rest of my life without working after my tennis playing career, but I know the directions I would like to go.”
Gilles Muller has demonstrated during this interview that he is an earnest, mature and candid individual, a man who knows himself well, and a fellow who looks at life through uncluttered lenses. As our discussion concludes, I want to know how he envisions himself maintaining the consistency he has displayed so commendably through 2014 and into the early stages of 2015. Muller answers, “One of the reasons I am able to play that consistent is I really worked hard to get into better shape than I ever had been before, and that has given me a lot of confidence. I have promised myself—and promised my family when I started travelling again after those seven or eight months when I was home—that I was going to do things right. I am not going to mess around anymore: let’s put it that way. Before I used to be out there practicing for two-and-a-half hours, but during that time there was a half an hour that my intensity was lacking. Now I am practicing usually two hours but with one hundred percent intensity, day in and day out. That makes me do the same things in matches. The top guys can do that day in and day out for every minute. I am trying to do the same thing as them.”
Not only is he trying, but the evidence is abundant: Muller is thoroughly succeeding in exploring the boundaries of his potential. The view here is that—if he can make a few moderate groundstroke refinements and keep plugging away—Muller will reside inside the top 20 at the end of 2015.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.
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