Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams – some of the greatest names in tennis have won an Olympic title. None, however, had managed to win two singles gold medals in their career, let alone in consecutive tournaments.
After an epic conclusion to the Rio 2016 contest, that unique honor belongs to Andy Murray. The Great Britain flagbearer beat the dogged but eventually heavy-legged Juan Martín Del Potro in a four hour, two minute showdown that emphasized the scale of his achievement, as he recovered from a mid-match slump to win 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 in front of a raucous crowd.
While not graceful, it was fiercely contested. You could not help but become enthralled when, point after point, set after set, the finalists competed with willpower that surely overwhelms any hesitation over the place of tennis at these Games.
The pattern of play emerged in the opening set as the Scot started strongly and Del Potro produced some remarkable rearguard action but ultimately fell short. Only half an hour into the match, the Argentinian already appeared exhausted, relying on bursts of energy, glucose gels and prolonged strolls in between points. Besides some attritional tactics from Murray, the 2009 US Open champion was no doubt suffering the effects of his semi-final; a grueling affair the previous day against Nadal, the Beijing gold medalist.
Del Potro had also overcome the top seed and world number one, Novak Djokovic, in the first round, despite being stuck in a lift for 40 minutes before the match. The second time that Del Potro had prevailed over the Serb in Olympic competition, following his win in the bronze medal play-off at London 2012, this triumph marked a remarkable return to form, with his last three seasons devastated by a recurrent wrist injury.
Yet, somehow, he still summoned the resolve to hit back immediately against Murray, breaking his serve in the first game of the second set and feverishly clinging onto the lead for nine more games. By contrast, Murray owned the third set in its entirety, looking too strong for too long, as if he was about to storm to his second gold medal.
The Scot, too, would have been eager for a swift ending, having faced arduous opposition from Fabio Fognini and Steve Johnson en route to the final, as well as doubles matches with his brother, Jamie, and team-mate, Heather Watson. However, it was the fourth set, reserved for the only best-of-five fixture in the tournament, where the final turned into a modern classic.
What became the final set was simply staggering. Some exceptional defense and mind-boggling groundstrokes meant that both stars canceled each other out, giving away seven breaks of serve in the 12 games. The rallies were so competitive that you almost wondered why the players chose not to contest the Olympic marathon. Or the boxing.
After many of these 269 wheezy exchanges, often concluding with a netted backhand from Del Potro, the emotions spilled out. Feelings also intensified off the court as the umpire struggled to contain the 10,000-strong crowd at the Olympic Tennis Center and, towards the climax, the excitement flared when two fans had to be ejected. The Barra da Tijuca complex could not have seemed more apart from the tranquil lawns of Wimbledon where Murray made his name.
Still, this was the point. South America had never seen such a showcase of tennis and, clearly, some spectators were total rookies. The atmosphere benefited from the presence of Del Potro, who had plenty of Argentine support keeping continental hopes alive, albeit to the displeasure of the Brazilians, and the action certainly lived up.
As the prospect of tiebreak developed, Murray eventually delivered. Del Potro served for the set at 5-4 but could no longer match moments of brilliance from the Briton, whose meet-every-ball court coverage carried him to a break of serve, and then once again in the deciding game.
Del Potro saved one match point, but he could not muster any more resistance when the second thundered over the net. Murray became the double Olympic champion. Both men embraced each other at the end, tearfully, as though only the players could understand the emotion and exhaustion that they were enduring.
Fresh from securing the most successful day for Great Britain at an overseas Games, Murray headed straight for the Cincinnati Masters, where he will begin his US Open preparations alongside the bronze medalist, Kei Nishikori, and Nadal, the men’s doubles champion. There will have been some party on that plane journey.
Whatever happens at Flushing Meadows, Rio 2016 might be etched into the history books as his greatest achievement on a hardcourt, perhaps overall. It will assume added significance, given that he shared it with the gymnast Max Whitlock, golfer Justin Rose and cyclist Jason Kenny on such a golden day for his Team GB. Likewise, the Olympics come at the peak of a stunning, career-defining nine months for Murray.
The 29-year-old has helped his country win the Davis Cup – quite a feat since he is the lone British player ranked in the world top 50. He also received the prestigious Sports Personality of the Year award in the UK, became a father and peaked three times on the court, reaching the final of each of the grand slams and lifting the Wimbledon crown for the second time.
Now, he may have designs on the number one spot, with Federer and Nadal floundering physically and even Djokovic looking less consistent than recent seasons. After his 18th consecutive victory, the debate will soon resume over where Murray stands in the pantheon of tennis legends. Caught in the shadow of the giants of age for so many years, the flying Scotsman finally seems ready to ride among them.