Müller, the veteran No. 16 seed from Luxembourg, who had never been past the third round in 12 previous Wimbledons, withstood a withering comeback from the fourth-seeded Nadal to win, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13, in a draining battle of left-handed players.
At 4 hours 48 minutes, it was the longest match at this year’s event, and Müller’s reward is his first trip to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in his 13th try. On Wednesday, Müller, 34, will face No. 7 Marin Cilic, who breezed past Roberto Bautista Agut, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2.
That match lasted 1 hour 41 minutes. Nadal and Müller’s fifth set alone went 2:15.
“If I would have lost that match, it obviously would have been very tough to digest,” said Müller, who failed to convert on his first four match points.
Mostly, his massive and well-placed serve produced the win of his life, and cost Nadal the chance to compete for his third Wimbledon title.
As close as the match was, Nadal usually was playing from behind, and often a tick behind Müller.
“I think I played with the right determination, right passion, right attitude to win the match,” Nadal said.
Nadal, of Spain, became the first of the so-called Big Four, also including top-seeded Andy Murray, No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Roger Federer, to go home.
Murray beat Benoît Paire, 7-6 (1), 6-4, 6-4, and will face No. 24 Sam Querrey in another quarterfinal.
Querrey, despite losing a grueling tiebreaker in the fourth set of his fourth-round match to Kevin Anderson of South Africa on Court 18, regrouped for the fifth set to win, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (11), 6-3.
Federer remained on track to compete for an eighth Wimbledon title by pushing aside Grigor Dimitrov, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, on Centre Court. Federer extended his open-era record by reaching a 50th Grand Slam quarterfinal. He will meet the big-serving No. 6 Milos Raonic, who showed some mettle of his own to grab the last two sets and beat No. 10 Alexander Zverev, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
The only member of the top four who did not get on court was Djokovic, whose fourth-round match against Adrian Mannarino was postponed to Tuesday. They were set to follow Müller and Nadal on No. 1 Court, but those two would not accommodate the scheduling. Wimbledon did not move Djokovic and Mannarino to Centre Court out of concern that the thousands of fans watching Müller and Nadal on the large video screen from the hill outside No. 1 Court might have caused a stampede trying to get into Centre Court.
Then again, Müller and Nadal were putting on a such a compelling show, those fans might have stayed put.
Nadal’s loss was so unexpected because he has played very well in the first half of the year, especially on clay, where he cruised to his record 10th French Open title last month. Over his first three matches at Wimbledon, his form was holding on the dry grass and dirty patches of the courts. Nadal acknowledged that the conditions were increasingly favoring his preferred clay-court style of play.
But Müller’s big serve and strong net play were built for grass, erasing Nadal’s momentum entering the match.
“I lost in the fourth round,” Nadal lamented. “That’s not the result that I was expecting.”
Müller is now 11-1 on grass this season. He dominated the first two sets, using his deceptive toss and serve to confuse Nadal, who did not break until the third set.
But Nadal moved back a step from the baseline to get a bit more time to return with more authority, and gained momentum with each successful stroke.
When he finally broke to make it 3-1 in the third set, Nadal yelled to emphasize the point, inviting the fans to join the fray on his behalf.
When he held his serve to go up by 4-1, he thrust his fist, jumped into the air — without hitting his head this time — and yelled. The audience responded, and Nadal rode the wave to capture the set.
“I put everything on the court,” Nadal said. “I played with all my passion.”
But Müller was not overwhelmed by Nadal’s gathering strength. The fifth set, which continued almost until 8 p.m., was a tense, thrilling affair. As it went from 7-7, to 8-8 and 9-9, Müller’s serving was actually improving.
At 9-9, he had to summon all his resolve to keep Nadal from breaking. The game lasted nine minutes, included five deuces and Müller staved off four break points before holding with an ace down the middle.
Down by 9-10, Nadal saved a fourth match point with a serve that Müller mis-hit. With the encroaching darkness becoming an issue, they continued on their back-and-forth track until it was 13-13.
Müller held again, and at 13-14 Nadal mis-hit a forehand to set up a fifth match point for Müller. On the final point Nadal swatted a ball long.
Müller barely moved for a second, then broke into an almost sheepish grin, while Nadal was left figuratively banging his head over a lost opportunity.
“In the fifth, you play against a player like him, that’s serving well, you know you are on the deadline,” said Nadal, who was 0 for 5 on break points in the fifth set.
He added: “It just depends on a few balls. He was a little better than me in those few balls.”