How brave Murray is continuing to defy all expectation
After 20 bloodletting months, where his patella, vertebrae, hip and cartilage seared and screeched, Andy Murray offered a last passing shot of defence before the walls crumbled down.
His sigh froze the Australian Open press conference room in morbid anticipation, the tears snaked along his lower eyelids, the layers of entrenched resilience finally beginning to crack. Slowly, he stood up and left the room to compose himself.
"Obviously, I've been struggling for a long time," he said after returning to his seat. "The pain is not allowing me to enjoy competing, training or any of the stuff I love about tennis. I spoke to my team and I told them, 'I cannot keep doing this'."
But by the time Murray made it home, after the overwhelming fanfare and rushed eulogies, his resolve had already begun to nag. Almost immediately, he announced his intention to make a comeback; a type of binding contract of his refusal to let go.
A fortnight later, he underwent the specialist hip resurfacing operation that was supposed to draw a curtain on his career, but was really a last Hail Mary to hold onto.
The 264 days that followed - from wheelchair to crutch, morphine to antibiotic, village sports club in Oxshott to Sunday's final with Stan Wawrinka - has often felt like a hopeless dash from retirement's gates.
In the first singles match of his return, Murray was toyed back and forth by Richard Gasquet - who he'd beaten comfortably in each of their last six meetings.
"You could see that it was not the Murray of before," the Frenchman said afterwards.
The following week, his strength deserted him and he capsized 6-1 in the deciding set against Tennys Sandgren. Afterwards, Murray went off-script and entered a second-tier Challenger Tour event in Mallorca, the type where sponsors frothed with shocked delirium at his arrival.
But in the round of 16, against little-known World No.240 Matteo Viola, his body betrayed him again, the cobalt in his mind unable to match the mushroom cap on his thigh bone. If it didn't feel like the end, it was little more than a lingering half-life.
Under the microscope, the fading margins couldn't help but glare: the way he couldn't quite spring into his first serve, the labour to his pivots, the wince as he shunted the full force of his body weight onto his knee. The uncomfortable catch-22 as he eked at every last sinew, a man running away from the abyss by returning to the same road that led him there.
On Sunday, though, playing only his 14th singles match of the year, his 132nd game in four days, Murray produced what to many was unthinkable.
Over two-and-a-half gruelling hours in an understated suburb of Antwerp, he resurrected a lost fortress of defence, terrorised the baseline and protracted rallies physics had twice attempted to end. With Wawrinka up a set and two break points, Murray rallied back to win seven straight points and turned the match, leeching every drop of momentum from his opponent; out-thinking, out-hitting, out-running. It was as close to the old Murray as anything we've seen.
Murray won't ever have the magnetism or charisma of a Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, but it's that indestructible resistance, the willpower that pushed him so hard his body broke down, that paints a type of irresistible charm.
He tries like most of us never had and he's bled, cried and failed in the spotlight like we never will. He was never supposed to win a Grand Slam, never strong enough to win a Wimbledon, never equipped with a fundamental to outclass the three greatest players to lift a racket. He was never supposed to return from one hip surgery, let alone two; and so even when he had no right or need to win again on this last lap of honour, he forced us to believe again.
Who knows how long it can last; if this was a rise from the ashes or a last burning twilight. But as Wawrinka's looping forehand drifted beyond the baseline, there was no eccentric celebration. Murray simply walked back to his chair, draped a towel over his head and hid the rivers of emotion.
This time, like so many before, he had nothing left to give.
"I didn't feel ready to win," he said. "But it happened."