Andy Muray has played and lost five finals at the Australian Open, four of them to Novak Djokovic and the first to Roger Federer.
None of those five finals ever went to a fifth set. Federer outplayed the rookie in 2010, who couldn’t muster a counter against Djokovic in 2011. He was much more competitive in 2013 and 2015, but went down in straight sets again in 2016. It was brutal — falling constantly short in the crucial moments at Melbourne.
But on Monday, playing possibly his final match in Australia, standing on one-and-half hip, Murray did what he failed to do in any of the finals – fight back and force a decider. Sir Andy Murray showed the valour befitting his knighthood, battling till the end in his 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5/7), 6-7 (4/7) 6-2 defeat to 22nd seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round of 2019’s first major.
The 31-year-old was playing through immense pain with a chronic hip injury that he tearfully admitted will end his career this season. He was struggling to move at times. He was up against a seeded player high on confidence, having beaten Stan Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic, and Tomas Berdych at the Qatar Open recently.
But the manner in which the Scotsman fought for every point, at the net and on the baseline, for over four hours was a great example of he played his tennis. He always looked like he was in a battle, fighting to make his space in an era dominated by monoliths. But he persevered with grit and willpower and single-minded determination, when his best game was not enough.
Glimpses of this vintage Murray court-craft were visible in his first-round match at Melbourne Arena as well – the cracking backhand down the line, the clever slices, the crafty lobs and casually genius points at the net. Even the frequent frustrations at his own errors, talking to himself to snap him out — it was a very Murray performance, if you will.
As was his discomfort, struggling to change direction, hesitating to put his full weight on both legs. This was not a top player at his 100% and it was this fitness barrier that got the two breaks as he erred after grueling, long rallies in the first two sets.
But the Scot soldiered on, even as he fell short once again in Melbourne. Unlike those five finals, this time he did not have much to lose. He did have one very important thing to gain – the belief that he was still himself.
Andy Murray the fighter, the man who made the Big Four, the golden generation of tennis, the force they were.
Forcing a decider after being two sets down was a reminder that even as his body as failed him, the Grand Slam contender’s spirit and skill were still there.
Through the five sets, Murray fought for every point, made errors that could and should have been avoided, went that extra step to set up winners, scored sensational points, and just didn’t give in easy. He had the first break point of the match, but it was Bautista Agut who got the first break and that was enough.
After losing the first two sets with a solitary break, Murray – feeding off from the energy of the crowd – clinched the next two in Tiebreaks with a classic display of his tennis smarts. He used his head, even as he emptied the buckets – as Darren Cahill put it. He made for his dodgy hip, with his heart.
However in a hark back to how his career went from highest of highs in 2016 to losses and injuries, the Scot was almost all out of gas in the fifth set, going double break down. He faced match points on his serve, but held on only for the match to end on Bautista Agut’s serve.
It was an emotional moment, even if inevitable.
But it was a celebration of who Murray is as a tennis player as well. “If this was my last match, (it’s an) amazing way to end. I gave literally everything I had. It wasn’t enough tonight,” he said after the match.
For the longest time, this was his identity on the tennis court: Not enough.
He lost eight out of the 11 Grand Slam finals he played. He had a poor head-to-head record against Federer, Djokovic and Nadal. He could be accused of being a whiner when losing, targeted for his “boring” style or boorish behavior.
But one thing you could never say was that he didn’t try his absolute best. Despite the many setbacks on court, Murray didn’t know nor care to quit.
It is said that fortune didn’t favour him as he played all his Major finals, with the exception on Wimbledon 2016, against either Federer or Djokovic. It can be argued that it was the some rough hand of the draw that put the experienced Bautista Agut in his path in the first round.
Maybe, just, maybe his gutsy performance has given him renewed confidence that he can push till Wimbledon, where he said he would prefer to end his career. The fight showed that he can compete but not at the level he used to operate unless he has a risky operation. And that won’t be enough for someone who has been world No 1.
But that won’t stop the world No 229 from trying his best to return. In the immortal words of Dylan Thomas, just like today, he will rage against dying of the light.