Four hours and four minutes after they began, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro walked slowly to the net and leaned toward each other. It was less a hug than it was a moment of mutual physical support; they needed it after spending four long, grinding, anxious, back-and-forth sets trying to knock each other down.
Del Potro bent down toward Murray’s shoulder and said, “I’m so happy for you, man.” The feeling was surely mutual. Murray, with his 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory, had become the first player to win two singles gold medals since tennis was reinstated at the 1988 Olympics. But del Potro, who 14 months ago was in a hospital bed recovering from wrist surgery, had been the emotional heart of the tournament, and had more than earned his silver medal at its end.
The day before, after beating Rafael Nadal in a classic, three-hour semifinal, Delpo had said that he would be satisfied, after all that he been through, with second place. Except that that’s not how he played this match. Del Potro spent much of its four hours looking like he was on the verge of collapse; when he wasn’t leaning on the net after a grueling point, he was leaning on his racquet. But as hard as Murray tried to take his legs out from under him, the big man refused to fall. He was lifted up by a rowdy pro-Argentine crowd that chanted his name all the way through the match and into the medal ceremony.
Del Potro is known as the most ferocious ball-basher in the sport’s history, but he played some very clever and canny tennis throughout the Olympics, and especially in the final. The fact that he can’t hit his backhand at top speed because of his surgically repaired left wrist would seem to be a serious liability. But somehow he managed to make it a strength. Del Potro essentially turned himself into two players against Murray: From the forehand side, he looked for openings and crushed the ball into them. From the backhand side, Delpo sliced the ball softly crosscourt, forced Murray to hit up on it with his backhand, and looked for a chance at a forehand. Murray was either waiting for a puff ball and trying to generate his own pace with it, or he was trying to catch up to a bullet.
Yet, as he has all week, and for most of the year, Murray found a way to solve the difficult problem on the other side of the net. In the third round, he had come back from 0-3 down in the third set to Fabio Fognini, and had survived a furious surge from Steve Johnson to win a final-set tiebreaker in the quarters. At times in both of those matches, Murray had looked to be out of options and emotionally spent, and his opponent had looked ready to run away with it. But each time Murray had stopped his opponent’s momentum cold.
And that’s how the final played out. Murray called the match “very, very stressful,” and he played it with an edge of anxiety. As in the Wimbledon final, he was the favorite; and as he had a few times in that Wimbledon final, he hesitated with the lead against del Potro. Murray made barely 50 percent of his first serves, missed more routine ground strokes than he normally does, and struggled to hold onto the lead once he had it. When Murray won the third set with a forehand return winner, the gold appeared to be halfway around his neck. Then he opened the fourth set with four unforced errors and was broken. Half an hour later, del Potro, once left for dead, had risen on the wings of his fans and was serving at 5-3 to force a fifth set.
Murray never let him get there. He had done it the hard way all week, and that’s how it was going to have to be in the final. Once he was down 3-5, Murray started making serves—he saved a break point at 5-5 with an ace—and putting more pace on his returns. Each of the last three games went to deuce, but Murray won them all.
The men’s singles at the Olympics offered epic matches and plenty of surprises. We saw the return of del Potro and Nadal, the rise of Steve Johnson, the early demise of Novak Djokovic, and another heartbreak for Gael Monfils. But it ended the same way it had in London last time, with steady, stubborn Andy Murray smiling hesitantly and holding up the gold medal proudly.
Last November, Murray led Great Britain to the Davis Cup title. Last month, he won his home Slam at Wimbledon. Now he’s bringing back another Olympic gold medal. I hope the people of Great Britain love watching him play, because Murray, who hasn't always had the smoothest relationship with the fans and press back home, obviously loves playing for them.