If this was the end then Andy Murray
left the Australian Open
with some glorious, heroic reminders of why he was once, fairly briefly, the best player in the world.
There was the competitive spirit, the chuntering, the wonderful shots, piercing returns and examples of marvellous defensive play. And at the end there was emotion, the 31-year-old Scot humbled by the support of the host nation.
But ultimately the sustained quality to overcome someone of Roberto Bautista Agut's calibre was not quite there, and he went down 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-2 before leaving the Melbourne Arena as he had arrived, to a thunderous ovation from a predominantly Australian crowd.
Against the world No 24 this was more than perfectly respectable, it was often brilliant, but it was beyond the Scot, who can no longer mount the kind of sustained challenge that saw him reach five finals at this venue.
He can still hit the ball with precision and superb timing, and there were times – such as when he broke back for 2-2 in the third set with a stunning backhand to first gain some serious momentum and ignite the contest– when he could bring the crowd to its feet.
Playing like this, Murray could beat at least two thirds of the field here. No wonder he does not want to quit when everything still functions so well apart from the blasted hip, its effects in this match deadened by painkillers and adrenaline.
What a stunning contrast to the forlorn figure he cut last Thursday, when his drubbing in practice by Novak Djokovic reduced him to despair. His subsequent tearful press conference appears to have been cathartic.
That will not dull the immediate pain of defeat, however, as such a ferocious competitor will know he could have finished the job off. At 0-1 and 0-30 down in the decider Bautista Agut was unravelling, but a series of marginal errors let him back in.
What the match will tell him upon sober reflection is that he is still capable of overcoming high class opponents, should he wish to preserve.
50 per cent (5/10)
72 per cent (23/32)
31 per cent (49/156)
191 kmph (119 mph)
1st Serve In
Break points won
Net points won
Receiving points won
20 per cent (1/5)
68 per cent (23/34)
23 per cent (34/147)
208 mph (129 mph)
Murray had walked out onto one of his favourite courts, the Melbourne Arena (No 3 at this venue), to the kind of reception rarely awarded to sportsmen from the UK in Australia.
Among those watching were his mother Judy, Davis Cup Captain Leon Smith and his ex-coach and close friend Dani Vallverdu. Unusually, they were joined after five games by brother Jamie, who is a rare sight in his supporters' box.
Murray had said he would ingest some painkillers for this match and, whatever it was, he looked sprightly enough in the early exchanges, as well as hitting serves of nearly 130 mph.
For Bautista Agut it was always going to be an awkward task, especially with nobody supporting him, but he was soon sticking by his trusted method of hitting the ball flat and hard.
It was good enough to bring him the ATP Qatar title nine days ago and he has been in his best form.
Murray responded well and the Spaniard may have wondered whether this was pretty much the exact same player who has beaten him three times out of three previously.
Indeed it was the Scot who had the first chance to break, at 4-3, but he fluffed his backhand into the net. That stroke, so reliable normally, was a little more erratic than we are accustomed to seeing.
The chance gone, Bautista Agut broke in the next game when Murray stuck a forehand in the net. If anything it was an encouraging sign that he was furious, chuntering to both himself and his support team in the stands.
Murray had two more break chances early in the second set which went begging and then was broken at 2-2 when the Spaniard worked his way into the net. Again it looked more like ring-rust and restricted practice as much as any physical shortcoming.
It was in the third that he properly roused himself, missing a set point at 5-4 but then making amends with a wonderful tie-break in which he applied enough pressure, old style, to break the nerve of his opponent.
Bautista Agut made a desperate hash of a volley at 5-4 and after Murray had closed it out he went and sat back on his bench, exhorting the crowd to further get behind him. He knows that there will never be rushes like this again when it is all over, and that is powerful fuel.
The Spaniard reduced his unforced error count in the fourth set as the quality of exchanges went up from both men. Murray will only have been too aware that this was the same player who collapsed from two sets up against Cameron Norrie when GB played Spain in the Davis Cup last year, although his level of play remained superior this time compared to that strange afternoon in Marbella.
Murray was in his element in the tie-break, fighting a rearguard action against an increasingly tremulous opponent. With the Spaniard wavering the twice-Wimbledon champion drew on all his muscle and mental memory to prevail, soaring ahead to 6-1 and then finishing it off with a swinging serve at 6-4 that Bautista Agut could only parry into the net.
Murray looked to have him on the rack at 1-0 and 0-30 against serve in the decider but four errors let the Spaniard back in and he was broken in the next game. He had scented blood but been unable to go in for the kill.
The disappointment haunted him and he was broken twice from there, with more signs of his injury becoming apparent as he rued the missed opportunity while clearly being deeply touched by affection of the crowd who rose to him after four hours and nine minutes of combat.
Before leaving the court Murray was shown a video tribute from his peers, but just about kept himself together. He left the door open for the remote possibility that he might come back while thanking the crowd.
'That was incredible. Thank you so much to everyone who came out tonight. Honestly, I've loved playing here over the years. It's an amazing place to play tennis,' he said.
'If it was my last match, it was an amazing way to end. I literally gave everything I had. It wasn't enough tonight, so congratulations to Roberto and his team.
'Maybe I'll see you again. I'll do everything possibly to try. If I want to go again, I'll need to have a big operation where there are no guarantees I will be able to come back from. I will give it my best shot.'