TWO calendar months had passed since Rafael Nadal had lost a set of tournament tennis. When that sequence ended at Wimbledon yesterday and the loss was followed immediately by another it was obvious that whatever happened from that point, this was going to be one of those great Wimbledon dramas.

There was a strange mood in the No 1 Court air, too, the crowd seeming split between affection for a great champion, their love of an underdog and, perhaps tilting the balance, an awareness of what an upset might mean for an even greater favourite hereabouts with Nadal in the same half of the draw as Andy Murray.

It took the time required for a full football match before Nadal properly warmed to his task, breaking Gilles Muller’s serve to offer himself some much needed encouragement, but the emotion was withheld until he consolidated, punching the air and releasing a roar of relief as he held serve to 30 and moved 4-1 ahead.

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Muller responded impressively, by holding serve with successive aces, but by now he was facing a different opponent and Nadal’s reaction this time was to raise his own serving level. Two aces of his own, a service winner and another ace won that game and after Muller forced him to serve for the set, two more aces teed up the hold of serve.

As well and emotionally as Nadal was now playing, though, repeatedly jigging with delight as key points were won, the impassive way that Muller coped, even after he suffered the break in the eighth game of the fourth set that allowed the Spaniard to level the match at two sets all, was as impressive.

Few men have ever had the capacity to throw themselves at the ball,in the way Nadal can, as was exemplified in the 10th game of the final set as, serving to stay in the match, he fell 0-30 behind. It is an approach that carries huge risks of course and after a great winner he double faulted to give his opponent two match points, but responded with an ace and when Muller double faulted the impression was that his chance had gone.

This, though, was merely a taster for what was to come, close to a further hour of intense play, comprising relatively few lengthy rallies, but utterly compelling as one man intent on attack confronted another who was unprepared to take a backward step, elapsing before there were further break points.

Once more, after 21 games of the final set, it was Muller’s way and once more Nadal fought his way out of the pit, maintaining his depth before sneaking into the net to save the first then, after a Muller volley winner brought him to the brink once more, producing a second serve that his opponent completely miscued.

The 28th game of the final set, the 66th of the match in all and, as he had already done several times, Muller got to love-30 on his opponent’s serve as Nadal netted a volley before he drove a forehand winner down the line. The tension was growing and the next two points were shared as a result of mistakes, both men driving the ball long, resulting in another two match points, only the first of which was required as the world No 2 erred in similar fashion for a second successive time, sending shock waves through Wimbledon as, after four hours and 48 minutes, one of its greatest ever matches was over.