Andy Murray’s defeat against Roberto Bautista Agut may have been his last but for a few glorious hours, it was hard to tell that this might be it.
Perhaps the only thing Australians enjoy more than a winner is an underdog. And so, on a balmy summer’s evening in Melbourne, at a venue where he has suffered more than his fair share of heartache, Andy Murray played what may yet turn out to be his last ever match with almost 15,000 fans hanging on his every move.
And for long spells, belief was somehow suspended. Murray, dressed in dark blue and white, straining at every turn, matched Roberto Bautista Agut, a Spaniard ranked world No 22 in some of the best form of his life. For a few glorious hours, it was hard to tell that this might be it. “Isn’t he supposed to be injured?” one fan muttered?
This, of course, was where Murray has had so much success and yet fallen agonisingly short so many times in the past. Five times he made the final, and five times there was always someone better, just. On one occasion, defeat was so raw that only a hug from Judy Murray, his mum, would help.
Judy was courtside here, alongside her older son Jamie. You know it’s serious when Jamie’s there. Leon Smith, his first coach other than Judy, sat next to Nigel Sears, Murray’s father-in-law. This was a family affair, one last chance perhaps, although if he can make it to Wimbledon, then perhaps he will get the send-off he really deserves.
Has there been a better competitor in British sport over the past 50 years? It’s hard to think of one. Murray has been through the lows, struggled with injury, with doubts, with fears, and come out the other side as a serial winner. He has always been popular but here in particular, they took him to their hearts right from the get-go, as the Aussies would say.
Murray came on to court shortly after Kyle Edmund, the man who has replaced him as the British No 1, was sent packing in the first round. This was Murray’s stage and even if he was in pain, limping between points and clearly in discomfort, he would not give up trying. He never has.
The television captioners must have had a field day. Murray has always been vocal on court but as he strained to race down the angles, he was even more vociferous. “Aaagh, ugghhhh, agghh.” Grimacing throughout, Murray continued to hit the ball as well as he had done at any time in the past year, but there was no disguising the pain he must have been in. “He’s hobbling,” one man said in the crowd, the realisation kicking in as Bautista Agut took the second set.
The Spaniard was quietly doing his business, pushing Murray around the court, wrong-footing him when he could, forcing him to extremes he can no longer reach. He was clinical. It was almost cruel.
And yet this was Murray, so there would be drama, moments of utter brilliance, of defiance, a reminder of the things that have made him so great. On the first point of the third set, finding himself pinned to the baseline and almost wrong-footed with Bautista Agut at the net, Murray dipped a backhand pass low. Moving forward for the expected drop volley, he almost overran the ball but stopped dead and flicked a half-volley over Bautista Agut’s head. The Spaniard tried the tweener and Murray angled away a deft volley. Fist raised, he took in the applause one more time.
“Andy’s fans in the stands, if you hear us, clap your hands,” said a group of people in the crowd, a plea that drew the Scottish flags out in force. Murray was taking it all in, seemingly enjoying the whole experience and hating it at the same time.
Then came the twist. Down a break in the third set, Murray hammered a backhand return to set up break-back point, and then played a perfect drop shot, followed by a backhand slice into the open court for the break for 2-2. Arms aloft, Murray pumped his fist and waved both arms around. The crowd loved it.
On the second point of the following game, Murray yelled “Let’s go,” just like old times. And when he held serve to love to lead 3-2, was there a slight spring in his limp? He thought he could win, didn’t he? Suddenly he was bouncing around and so were the crowd. When he took the third set, the crowd went mad; when he snatched the fourth, Murray’s roar was deafening.
Queen’s We Will Rock You rang out as the fifth set began but the pain was there too, as it was on the faces of Judy and Jamie, who looked like they could barely handle it. The fight was still there, as it’s always been. The ovation he received as he served to stay in the match will live long in his memory and was met with a wave of the racket. There was nothing more he could have done.