Murray delivers one last display fitting of a champion in Melbourne
Andy Murray may not be going out on his own terms, but perhaps Monday at the Australian Open was the next best thing.
The three-time grand slam champion produced a wonderful performance in a 6-4 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-7 (4-7) 6-2 loss to 22nd seed Roberto Bautista Agut on Melbourne Arena.
A man whose troublesome hip looks set to end his career in 2019, Murray delivered a display perhaps even fans in Melbourne had not seen from him before.
Pushed into a fifth hour by Bautista Agut, who beat Novak Djokovic and won the title in Doha to begin his season, the Brit showed glimpses of his very best.
At times hobbled and others frustrated, Murray used the weapons that have made him a great as his willingness to fight and defensive prowess, combined with the ability to deliver in pressure moments, almost saw him to an unlikely first-round win.
Murray had never before forced a fifth set when losing the first two at Melbourne Park, but even that had to be corrected before his retirement.
Only Roger Federer (seven) and Novak Djokovic (six) have made more finals in Melbourne than Murray in the Open Era, and they hold a record six crowns apiece.
It has been the scene of consistent heartbreak for five-time runner-up Murray, yet Monday was at least a little different, given there was no expectation he would last too long against the Spaniard.
His 'Big Four' colleagues have always won the popularity stakes at the year's first grand slam, but Murray had an appreciative crowd on his side from the moment he received a resounding ovation as he entered the arena.
Thank you, Andy.— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 14, 2019
One of the best fighters tennis has ever seen.
Thank you for everything. pic.twitter.com/iedYwiUpnS
A straightforward and somewhat expected exit appeared on the cards early, the 31-year-old who struggles to put on his socks without pain battling in the opening sets.
But there was the characteristic response, Murray showcasing his talent with some remarkable early returns and producing a series of brilliant shots during two tie-break wins that thrilled those watching on.
He won an epic 16-shot rally in the second game of the decider, but his momentum was halted when he dropped serve in the third game.
Continuing to struggle physically, Murray was unable to find a way back once more, the crowd showing their appreciation for his career with a long ovation ahead of the seventh game.
It was the performance, if not result, of a champion, which is just how Murray will be remembered in Melbourne despite his near misses.