Thirty three years on the clock, a bionic hip, relentless opponent and sore toes crushed into the New York concrete – still it was not enough to turf Andy Murray out of the US Open.
This was a victory almost as astounding as his finest hour eight years ago, when he broke his Grand Slam duck by beating off the relentless challenge of Novak Djokovic in the final.
On Tuesday night there was no febrile atmosphere to feed off, just acres of empty seats in the vast, Covid-secured Arthur Ashe Stadium with a few support staff and onlooking players for company. He needed to reach deep inside himself again.
Andy Murray sealed a thrilling comeback in the US Open first round to beat Yoshihito Nishioka
The former world No 1 took down Nishioka 4-6, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 at Flushing Meadows
The pair embrace at the net following the thrilling first-round contest at the US Open
After his victory, Murray admitted he was apprehensive of going the distance against Nishioka
His opponent was no Djokovic, rather the lightning quick and deathly consistent Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, who wins his matches by running the legs out of those who come across him.
Yet Murray has been through so much in the intervening time that the achievement of outlasting the world number 48 to win 4-6, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 in not far off five hours was something unique in itself.
This was the tenth time in his career that he has come back from two sets down to triumph in the format that demands the most of a player, but the first that he has managed with a large metal cap inserted in his hip.
‘I did alright physically,’ said the Scot, in what could be a reference to the whole last three years of the saga induced by the ageing process.
It ended in heartbreak for Nishioka after being in a commanding two-set lead in the first round
Murray had to dig deep against Nishioka to ensure his stay at the US Open wasn’t brief
Understatement has always been his preferred way of speaking, but this performance was little short of sensational under the circumstances.
He had looked utterly flat for the first two hours of the match, which had suggested that there may have been some secret setback of the last few days. Occasionally he even looked disinterested in chasing down the piercing drives of his opponent.
But Murray has always had this mental SatNav that usually finds a way through the traffic of a match. By the end he was striking a much better balance of attack and defence, having looked in two minds early on.
The physical effort it took, however, will have taken its toll. It is hard to win a fortnight-long Grand Slam when you have expended so much energy early on, even though he will now have the relative luxury of a day to recuperate.
That is why his Slam-winning days are surely over, and why he may yet struggle against outstanding Canadian prospect Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second round.
Murray showed plenty of tiredness but found that grit to enjoy an incredible comeback
It appeared as if Nishioka would prove too much for Murray after racing into a two-set lead
This was always going to be a difficult reintroduction to best-five-tennis after a 20-month absence. Nishioka has only been playing exhibitions during lockdown at home, but the diminutive lefthander was good enough to defeat Dan Evans in straight sets at January’s Australian Open.
Despite knowing that Murray came out desperately flat, for all that he opened proceedings with a magnificent lob on the very first point in his first singles Major since Melbourne 2019.
For a long while it looked like he was going to acquit himself way worse than on that emotional evening when he fought back from two sets down to force Spanish workhorse Roberto Bautista Agut to five sets. By remarkable coincidence, the first four sets exactly mirrored the scoreline of that match.
Nishioka seemed to be comfortably playing within himself as he went up 4-0 in the second. It was difficult to credit that only last week Murray had beaten American Frances Tiafoe and Germany’s world number seven Alex Zverev.
Starved of any atmosphere to feed off the in the 25,000-seat arena, he vaguely stirred at 0-4 down in the second, when his first ‘doughnut’ set beckoned since Roger Federer wiped him out at London’s 02 Arena in 2014.
Murray was playing his first Grand Slam singles match in 596 days after injury rehabilitation
There was an eerie feel at the US Open as Murray battled it out with his Japanese opponent
Most of his openings came through creeping unforced errors on the Japanese side, and it was only after more than two hours’ play that we started to see a more familiar version of Murray.
He recovered an early break in the third, showcasing his volleying skills, and gradually he began to crank up his forehand. In the tiebreak he repeatedly struck out off that flank and made no mistake after getting ahead for 6-4, finally letting out the old war cry.
In the locker room the players know that Murray is less explosive, not the physical specimen he once was, but that sooner or later his fighting spirit is likely to come to the fore. What was strange on Tuesday night was just how long that process took.
The low, skiddy serve from the other end was continuing to cause Murray problems and he struggled to gain any headway against it in the fourth, while regularly having to fend off break points.
Two uncharacteristically poor volleys led to him facing a first match point at 5-6, but a pinpoint first serve that Nishioka returned long saved him and secured the second tiebreak.
The less experienced player’s nerve then proved the weaker and, with nearly four hours already on the clock, Murray took it 7-4 and into the denouement.
He went a break down in the fifth but most people – possibly including the plucky Nishioka – knew that he would find a way in the end. That method continues to serve Murray impeccably as he drags his weary body into his mid thirties.
* Austria’s Dominic Thiem, who was in first round action on Tuesday night, was given an unusual code violation for ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ before he had even taken to the court. The official USTA explanation was that members of his entourage had been found not to be wearing their compulsory masks in all areas around the site.
* Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro, the former world number six, has announced that she has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and that she faces six months of chemotherapy treatment.