Andy Murray flirted too often with disaster, he conquered his nerves and, after four sets of agonising fluctuations, defeated Juan Martín del Potro in Rio on Sunday night.
It was a final riddled with enough drama to compensate for the serial imperfections of both players. There were 15 breaks of service, many of them consecutive, eked from an astonishing 35 opportunities, as well as 102 unforced errors, shared roughly equally. Game points came and went, squandered mostly, rather than stolen. This was a fight that either of them could have won or lost several times over.
Del Potro – who had seen off Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the first match of the tournament and Rafael Nadal in three hours and eight minutes of hell in the second semi-final – was never going to be intimidated, even though many expected him to fold.From the start, Murray gave Del Potro’s new backhand slice a proper working over and the Argentinian, corralled in the ad corner for nearly quarter of an hour, cracked after saving three break points but not a fourth.
On appearances alone, the prospect of Del Potro remaining competitive beyond three sets seemed negligible, yet he was still dangerous, still punching, still willing. When he held for 4-2, he fist-pumped determinedly, knowing the long haul would bring pain but perhaps glory. Both were now suffering, but in different ways.
Del Potro’s legs might have been screaming at him, but his strong right arm – the one whose wrist had collapsed and forced him into a long, dark struggle to get back to his best – was buzzing. And what heart he showed to wear down Murray with power and persistence in a long 10th game to take the set with a killer forehand into the deuce corner.
Murray was the first to hold serve in this weird fourth set, but gambled needlessly at the net to hand Del Potro parity in the sixth game. Suddenly there was a spring in the big man’s step. He lured Murray into an injudicious lob, smashed it as if cracking a walnut to break again, and cries of “Argentina! Argentina!” whistled around the arena.Serving to stay in the match in a long and tortuous 10th game, Del Potro looked utterly spent as he plugged the net with a closing backhand to hand Murray yet another reprieve.
At 30-30 in the 12th game, two points short of the medal, Murray faltered in the shot when someone shouted from the crowd. Soldiers led the miscreant from the fray at deuce.Murray got match point – and netted. Del Potro did likewise. Of course he did. They had been doing this all night. And then the show was closed. Del Potro found the net one time to many. The clown had gone. The players took their bows and embraced.