By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Rafael Nadal struggled to hide his disappointment after his attempt to reclaim the Wimbledon crown he last won seven years ago fell apart at the hands of Gilles Muller on Monday.
The 31-year-old Spaniard had rolled back the years in reaching the fourth round and seemed in the mood, and form, for a serious title assault at the All England Club just weeks after winning the French Open for a 10th time.
But left-handed Luxembourger Muller, seeded 16th, had other ideas though and edged an epic fifth-set 15-13 after Nadal had staved off four match points in a thrilling climax.
Magnanimous as ever, 15-times grand slam champion Nadal made no excuses, admitting Muller was the better player, but said he had wasted a golden opportunity to go all the way.
"I had my chances, and he had some mistakes, but not enough," Nadal, who returned to form at the start of the year when reaching the Australian Open final, told reporters.
"Is true most of the time in the fifth set he played more aggressive and he played better than me.
"I played well for moments, but I was a lot of times fighting against the score, too many times in the fifth," added the former world number one.
"Finally, the normal thing when you are in the situation too many times, is finally you lose. That's what happened.
"It's not the result that I was expecting. I played better than other years, true. At the same time I was ready for important things, so I lost an opportunity."
Until Monday, Nadal had not lost a set in grand slam play since losing January's Melbourne Park final to Roger Federer.
However, this was not to be his day.
He thumped his head on a ceiling while limbering up in a corridor before the start of play, appeared to turn his ankle slightly in the third set and was blinded by the sinking sun glinting against part of the Court One structure deep in the fifth set as he desperately tried to fight Muller off.
Ultimately, he paid for losing the first two sets 6-3 6-4 and while he hit back impressively to win the next two by the same margin, he was unable to complete what would have been only his fourth recovery from two sets down.
"When you play against these kind of players, you cannot have mistakes with yourself. That's what I did. I did twice, in the first and in the second. That cost me two sets," he said.
"In the fifth, he had more chances than me. So maybe he deserve it a little more than me."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)