This match against Roberto Bautista Agut was one step too far for the 35-year-old Scot, who had done exceptionally well to even reach the third round. Defeating 13th seed Matteo Berrettini in five sets on Tuesday was a huge achievement in itself, but then to follow it up with Thursday/Friday’s five hour, 50 minute, 4.05am victory over home favourite Thanasi Kokkinakis was remarkable. Claiming the scalp of one of the more obdurate opponents in the men’s game in Bautista Agut after such exertions was always going to be a stern challenge. Murray gave it a right good shot against the 24th seed but it was just not to be, going down 6-1 6-7 (7/9), 6-3 6-4 in just over three-and-a-half hours in Melbourne.
Bautista Agut defeated Murray easily in Doha and Basel last year, dishing out a 6-0 bagel set in one of those encounters, and the Spaniard is not a good match-up for the current world No 66. Unlike Berrettini and Kokkinakis, he defends very well and moves beautifully all over the court, using craft and guile more than raw power. Murray did so well to recover from a wretched first set here and make the match ooze with quality and competitiveness, but it is Bautista Agut who moves through to the last 16 and as the only seed left in his quarter of the draw, he has a good chance of reaching the semi-finals. Tommy Paul of America, a dangerous opponent, is up next for him.
Murray trudged off the court dejectedly after the defeat and he will be mightily disappointed not to have prevailed. But given the drama of earlier in the week, given his physical challenges of the past few years, given his metal hip, given his advancing years, this was a successful tournament for the three-Slam winner. He has added to a bulging catalogue of great moments in this quite glorious tennis career and what these past few matches have shown is that Murray’s fire still burns bright, and that we still have good times to come from this extraordinary sportsman, even in the twilight of his time on the court.
The first set passed in a blur. The big concern for Murray was fatigue, and that Bautista Agut would come out of the traps quickly. The Spaniard is no novice on the tour and has played in many big matches before. He knew that a fast start would benefit him. Holding his first service game comfortably, Bautista Agut set about picking apart his opponent. He broke Murray’s serve to love and then held again to go 3-0 up. The Scot chiselled his way through his next service game, holding to 40, but the writing was already on the wall in this set. Bautista Agut broke again and served out to love with just 29 minutes on the clock.
If Bautista Agut looked sprightly, Murray was the opposite. How could he not be? His early-morning finish on Friday was taking its toll. His movement was not as fluid, his timing a fraction off. He moved wearily. The danger was that this match could quickly run away from him. Bautista Agut was unstitching Murray with his ball placement, holding his serve effortlessly and pressuring his opponent’s. A break in the third game allowed him to put his nose in front once more.
The crowd inside Margaret Court Arena was largely pro-Murray. They knew he needed a lift. The seventh game seemed crucial. Murray staved off another break point with some good net-play and showed emotion, roaring at the spectators. The next service game from Bautista Agut felt pivotal, as momentum was shifting ever so slightly. Murray ripped a backhand down the line to set up 0-30. A double fault and Murray had three break points. He only needed one as his opponent slapped a poor forehand into the net. Four-all, second-set parity restored. The unforced errors were starting to splutter out of Bautista Agut. A backhand wide, another forehand into the net. Suddenly Murray was a game away from taking the second set. Bautista Agut, at 34-years-old, is too gnarled to panic in such situations, though, and we got to a tie-break.
This was it, you felt. The watershed moment of the match. Murray had to win this set. The Scot’s petrol tank is simply not as full as the Spaniard’s. Both men, frankly, played a mighty fine breaker, being deadly accurate with their ground strokes. Bautista Agut got to 6-4 but Murray refused to go down, saving two set points. When Murray to his chance to clinch the 78-minute set, the crowd went ballistic. Another mint Murray moment and the match was now in the balance.
Losing that set was a bodyblow to Bautista Agut but there was little sign of concern from him. Logically, he should still win this match. He’s fresher, has been in bed at a sensible time this week and doesn’t have a resurfaced hip. Murray likes defying logic but this was getting difficult, even if the third set settled into a pattern of high-quality points. Murray started to grimace, stretch out his back, mention it to his support box, but you don’t know if this sort of stuff inhibits him any more. He was still crushing his groundstrokes, especially on the forehand side, and being adept to the net. We got to 3-3 without break point being fashioned.
The eighth game of the set was the crucial one. Murray’s pace just dropped a little and Bautista Agut pounced upon him to get 0-30. Murray took a momentary break to wipe some bird excrement off the court but the next few points put him right back in the doo-doo. Staring at two break points, Murray hunkered down on the baseline and saved them. Another gruelling rally at deuce, another break point. “Vamos”, shrieked Bautista Agut as Murray cracked. He closed out the set 6-3. Murray, once again, was one set away from elimination.
Murray got the first break of serve in the fourth set to go 2-0 up but Bautista Agut fought straight back. With nearly three hours on the clock, Murray’s endurance levels were once again being tested to the max. He was becoming increasingly aggressive, trying to shorten the points and attack the net. Bautista Agut fashioned another chance to break but Murray closed the door shut. Bautista Agut kept knocking. Four-all, he smashed it open. A break to love, Murray starting fray. The Spaniard was serving for the match.
Murray got to 0-30, telling Bautista Agut that he would need to win this himself. But there was more mental fortitude at the other end of the net than when playing Kokkinakis, who choked when serving for the match against Murray last time. The handshake was brief, Murray clearly disappointed to lose. The ultimate warrior, competitor and champion. He was cheered wildly off the court. Legend is not too strong a word to use when describing Murray. All this week has done has reinforced that.