© Tennis Photo Network

Gilles Muller will try to defend his Sydney International title this week.

The Two People Who Push Muller To Success

Sydney defending champion opens up about how his kids have motivated him

At every barrier Gilles Muller crossed during his career-best 2017 – the usual ups and downs of a season, the elbow injury and the mental wear of it all – the left-hander had two people on his mind: Lenny, 6, and Nils, 5 – his two sons.

Ever since the boys were born, Muller had sought to share tennis with them. The Luxembourg native wanted to extend his career long enough so that he would still be playing at a high level once Lenny and Nils were old enough to remember Dad's tennis life.

Read & Watch: Muller's First Title Like A Movie

“I always wanted to see them in the stands, watching me play,” Muller exclusively told ATPWorldTour.com.

A year ago in Sydney, it happened. During the 2017 Sydney International final, Muller, then 33, ended his five-match losing streak in ATP World Tour finals and won his maiden ATP World Tour crown (d. Evans). His wife, Alessia Fauzzi, and their boys were in the stands, and Lenny and Nils joined Muller on court for the celebration.

“All those years paid off, to stay patient, show a lot of perseverance and just keep believing in yourself. Those are the most important things,” Muller said.

Watch Muller Share His Maiden Title With His Sons

The 6'4” left-hander returns to Sydney this week but in a much different place than where he was 12 months ago. Not only has Muller won a title, but he added another in 2017, winning the Ricoh Open in 's-Hertogenbosch (d. Mahut). The two-time titlist also has two brand-new words in front of his name in Sydney: defending champion.

“Last year I had probably one of the most beautiful days of my tennis career here so coming back, it's a very special feeling,” Muller said.

The 34-year-old kicked off his 2018 last week at the Brisbane International presented by Suncorp (l. to Chung). It was Muller's first match since 21 September at the Moselle Open in Metz (l. to Basilashvili). The left-hander shut down his season early because of inflammation just under his serving elbow.

“I played with the pain during the [U.S.] summer and then I decided that it was better to stop the season and get ready for next season,” Muller said. “I was feeling it a lot when I was serving and when I was playing forehands. So I did some rehab and then I started to get ready for the 2018 season quite early.”

Muller's health – or more aptly put, his lack of injuries – was the reason behind his late-blooming career year. In years prior and during last year, for the first time, Muller was able to play consecutive months without having to sit out because of knee or elbow pain.

Watch How Muller Perfects His Lefty Serve

In 2009, Muller's knees bothered him so much he couldn't even fully train and practise to get into match shape. But his ATP Ranking was around No. 80, which allowed him entry into Grand Slam draws and some Masters 1000 tournaments, along with their bigger pay cheques, so he felt like he couldn't afford to take time off to rehab the injuries.

“I was able to play, but I wasn't in the best shape to be able to play full seasons, to go deep into the tournaments,” he said. “I had a good tournament here and there, but then I had to take some time off because I felt some pain somewhere.”

Another injury, however, forced Muller to sit out. A few years later, he felt a nagging pain in his serving elbow, and doctors found a piece of bone in one of his joints, forcing him to miss six months of the 2013 season. The time off also let him rehab his knees and refresh his mind.

“I was able to work out every day,” Muller said.

At last healthy – and 10 pounds lighter – Muller strung together the best years of his life. He had never finished a season inside the Top 50 before 2014, and he's never finished a season outside of the top half since.

Getting Better With Age: Muller Climbs The ATP Rankings

Year

Year-End ATP Ranking

Age

2017

No. 25

34

2016

No. 34

33

2015

No. 38

32

2014

No. 47

31

2013

No. 366

30

2012

No. 68

29

“The thing that always helped me to get through the difficult times was my kids,” Muller said. “Back then they were just babies. They had no clue what I was doing. And I always dreamt of having them around in tournaments and watching me play. That was a big motivation, and I'm very happy that I stayed strong at that time.”

Muller, who will turn 35 in May, talks freely and often reflectively about entering the final years of his career. If he could do it all over again, sure, he'd change some things. But being the first player from Luxembourg to achieve a number of ATP World Tour milestones, Muller is mostly just proud of what he's accomplished.

“I had to find a way to get to the top because nobody was there to help me, nobody was there to show me. I mean now you see there's so many players from different countries and they're helping the kids in their countries to improve, to show them how it's done, to show them what to do to get there, and I didn't have that,” Muller said.

“Obviously I had to make a lot of things by myself, definitely I made some wrong choices, but at the end of the day I'm very proud because I decided everything by my own. I am now what I am because of me, not because of anybody else.”

Muller

Besides his two titles, Muller's 2017 was also highlighted by his first Wimbledon quarter-final, when he staved off a comeback against two-time champion Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 15-13 to advance past the fourth round at SW19.

“There's a moment where you kind of think, 'OK, this is it now because there's no way Rafa is going to drop the fifth set'. But then I told myself to just stay calm,” Muller said.

Read More: Muller Stuns Nadal In Wimbledon Classic

The mindset that helped him against one of the greatest players of all-time was the same one that helped him in Sydney, and will help him again in 2018, where he'll try to impress his two biggest fans every time he takes the court.

“The most important for me is to stay healthy. I saw again last year how quick it can go with a small injury, and then you're missing a couple of months,” Muller said. “I worked very hard physically in the off-season. I hope I'm ready to go for the whole season, and to just enjoy it. I'm going to be turning 35 this year so I don't have many years ahead of me. I'm just hoping to enjoy it and make the best of it.”

More stories like this in: