New resolve, more gold for Rio champion Andy Murray

RIO DE JANEIRO -- When Andy Murray was chosen to be Great Britain's flag-bearer last week, he was understandably delighted. But the responsibility appeared to be overwhelming at times. During a team photograph session, a nervous Murray fumbled and wrestled with the flag, coming close to poking Princess Anne in the eye.

It was a rough start for Murray, but perhaps, given the sure-footed way he ended up handling his duties on opening night, a telling one.

Rio was full of pulsating moments for the 29-year-old Scot, including several occasions in the tennis tournament, when he was near defeat. But as has been his tendency all summer, he flashed workmanlike consistency. He came through each time when it really counted, never more than in the Olympic final, a hard-fought 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 win against Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro.

"[With] the buildup of emotion the last 10 days, I'm just happy I got over the line tonight," Murray said. "Tonight was one of the hardest matches I have had to play for a big, big title. Emotionally, it was tough. Physically it was hard. So many ups and downs throughout the match.

Much of the tennis played this week was clean and crisp. Del Potro's upsets wins against Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were prime examples.

Murray versus del Potro was different. This was a battle of attrition. Of mental toughness and smarts. True, there were dozens of incredible moments. Murray consistently retrieved balls that seemed returnable and slapped them for winners. Del Potro hit his forehand with power that often left the crowd gasping.

But the tall Argentinian struck 57 unforced errors, and despite his booming serve, he was also broken nine times. And Murray wasn't much better. He had 45 unforced errors of his own, was broken six times and put only 51 percent of his first serves in play -- uncommon for the winner of such an important match.

"I was tired," Murray said. "We played four hours. It was humid and a slower court. I didn't serve well, so that made it tougher. ... I had to find a way to get through it."

Make it through, he did indeed. It's becoming a trend.

Murray's win set him apart from the competitors to whom he is most closely associated. Nadal has a single gold medal -- from Beijing in 2008, but Roger Federer and Djokovic have never won a singles gold. More than that, Murray achieved history. He is now the first tennis player, male or female, to win back-to-back singles gold medals.

"It hasn't been easy, because a lot can happen in four years, especially for tennis players," Murray said. "We have so many events. Since London, I had back surgery. My ranking dropped a lot during that period, and I've gone through some tough times on the court as well."

The Olympics are unusual for pro tennis players -- and not just because the event is played every four years. There is no prize money, and this year, the tournament did not count toward the official rankings. And yet the prestige that comes with the chance to win Olympic hardware, the chance to shine on the same stage as the best athletes from all over the world, give the tournament deep meaning. You could see it here in the amount of tears shed -- from both winners and losers -- the entire completion. Rio mattered.

And for Murray, the tournament firms up his 2016 bona fides. Nobody of late has mounted a sustained challenge to Djokovic for supremacy in the game. We cannot know for sure just yet, but it feels like Murray in current form -- the one that, in the span of two months, has been victorious at both the All England and Rio -- might now have a chance.

"Djokovic has played amazing tennis the last two years," Murray said. "His consistency. ... You know, what I have done for like the last four months, he has been doing for like a whole year. So I need to find a way to keep that going, and the US Open is the next big goal."

Since teaming again with Ivan Lendl -- who coached Murray to the Olympic gold medal in the 2012 London Games and then to the Scot's first Wimbledon title in 2013 -- he has played with a new resolve. All during Rio, Murray stayed away from the drama, the shouting at his supporters and the questionable display of acting injured in tight moments that has sometimes sapped his mental strength in the past.

Just like Lendl did when he dominated the game in the 1980s, Murray dominated in a workmanlike way. In two early matches here, he was down a break in the third set. But each time he stormed back at just the right time.

Murray made history on Sunday. But he told the press that during Sunday's match, history was far from his mind. He could think of nothing in this last match but survival.

By the end of it, both players were struggling to stay afloat. Del Potro walked slowly between points. He often bent over for a few seconds and rested his hands on his knees -- gassed. Then the Argentine's fans would begin roaring, chanting his name -- Delpo! Delpo! Delpo! -- and he would play a point full of more slashing forehands.

He took advantage of a spate of Murray errors to break serve in the first game of the fourth set. But Murray wouldn't budge. With del Potro looking like he was going to take this match to a deciding set, Murray broke back, held serve and, finally, broke again. Game, set, match. Gold was soon draping around Murray's neck.

After the medal ceremony, someone from the stands threw him a British flag. He carefully unfurled it, held it above his head and clutched it closely to his chest. Then he walked off, the flag curling around his wide shoulders, his workmanlike job in Rio done.