Gold medals are beautiful things but pain, grind and torment are often needed to win them – Andy Murray went through it all on Sunday night.
Britain’s most outstanding international athlete found himself running the anchor leg after Britain’s day of glory, and he needed to reach deep within himself to bring yet another gold home.
Fighting the adrenaline-fulled resolve of Juan Martin Del Potro, Murray became the first player to defend an Olympic singles tennis title when he sealed an ultimately joyful 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory.
What turned out to be an astonishing fourth set of breaks and counter-breaks against a seemingly exhausted opponent ended with both players running themselves to a standstill.
Three times Murray had to break back against the silky-moving giant from Tandil, who showed no little courage himself in battling on when his legs were threatening to buckle from under him.
‘When my daughter is old enough I will try to explain what I did,’ said the world No 2. ‘It means a lot, getting to carry the flag was amazing. I found that quite emotional and had to regroup and get my mind back. To finish it like that, I was emotional at the end as well and and very happy.
‘It’s amazing Juan Martin has come back to this level and he deserves a lot of credit because it’s not an easy thing to do.
‘I don’t know if this is my biggest achievement, tonight is one of the hardest I’ve had to play for a big title. The US Open in 2012 was very hard. Physically this was hard with so many ups and downs, and mentally. I am very tired.’
Comparing this and London he said: ‘At the time it was my first major event, I’d lost at Wimbledon just before. This has been much harder than London. The match was straightforward but tonight anything could have happened.
‘I won’t get the chance to enjoy it as much because I’m playing another match in about 48 hours,’ he added, referring to his tournament this week in Cincinnati that he was heading to.
We may be at Peak Murray right now, his skill and resilience taking him to greater heights exactly five weeks after lifting a second Wimbledon title. Only Novak Djokovic has beaten him since mid-April.
Like Justin Rose, newly befriended after they found themselves living on the same floor, Murray is completely sold on the Olympic and Team GB ideal and was desperate to lead from the front.
After arriving here he chose to ignore the apartment booked nearby by his management and move in with the team, rooming with his brother. His desire to deliver was only sharpened when being asked to carry the flag at the opening ceremony.
So despite the absence of ranking points and prize money this will have felt like a Grand Slam final, although the unique pressures at time scrambled his mind in a way that was never evident in the SW19 final.
Like at Wimbledon he was favourite, and at times it seemed to weigh on him as he was forced deep into the enormous recesses of the main stadium’s playing area by Del Potro’s attacks.
The men’s singles tennis gold medal is not one of the time-honoured Olympic classics but it is one of the more hard-earned, competing against full professionals from all over the world and requiring victory in six matches.
The strain had told on both men. Del Potro, so desperate to revive what looked like a career destined for greatness, was left in tears after knocking out Djokovic before beating Rafael Nadal in the semi-final.
Murray might easily have lost in both the third round and quarter final, but should have been much the fresher.
If the Scot feared a hostile crowd in South America he need not have worried. There were large pockets of Argentinian fans but the Brazilian neutrals seemed unimpressed, joining chants of ‘Let’s go Andy’ on occasions in surreal fashion.
Early breaks were exchanged but when Murray moved ahead for 4-1 he appeared to be in control with signs that Del Potro was feeling the previous day’s exertions in his legs.
But Murray’s first serve, so formidable against Nishikori, was landing in less than four times out of ten and his metronomic backhand was also malfunctioning. It only whirred into life when, on a second set point, he sent a precision pass down the line.
Del Potro was employing a combination of his newly minted, one-handed sliced backhands (protecting his left wrist) and his enormous forehand, which remains one of the sport’s most effective sledgehammers.
That made life difficult for Murray right until the end, although the South American briefly subsided towards the end the third set, only to reinvigorate If he stays fit it is hard not to see Del Potro back in the top ten next year.