LONDON (Reuters) - For a nation steeped in tennis history but long starved of success, Britain’s Andy Murray was the gift that kept giving.
From the moment the scrawny kid from the Scottish town of Dunblane won the junior title at the 2004 U.S. Open, he was touted as the real McCoy.
He did not disappoint and 14 years later, with his battle-scarred right hip apparently proving beyond even Murray’s never-say-die attitude, only the hard-hearted could wish him anything other than goodwill as he prepares for life after tennis with his 32nd birthday looming.
Whatever happens in the final act of his career he belongs in the pantheon of British sporting greats.
Despite a career forged in the toughest of all tennis eras, Murray has 45 career titles, including three Grand Slams, two Olympic golds, a Davis Cup and $60 million (£46.7 million) in career earnings.
Yet it was perhaps a defeat that opened the door to greatness, and a nation’s affection.
The 2012 Wimbledon final, Murray’s first at the All England Club where he shouldered home hopes for more than a decade, saw him eclipsed by Roger Federer and then receive a standing ovation as the tears flowed during his runner-up speech.
Britain loves a plucky loser but Murray was to prove anything but.
He returned to the Wimbledon lawns weeks later and rode a wave of national euphoria to beat Federer to Olympic gold.
A few weeks after that he outlasted Serbia’s Novak Djokovic to win the U.S. Open having lost his first four Grand Slam finals — a record he shared with coach Ivan Lendl.
Significant as that Flushing Meadows victory was — it banished the ghost of Fred Perry by ending a 76-year wait for a British Grand Slam champion — what followed a year later took Murray’s standing to an entirely different level.
With Rafael Nadal and Federer both suffering shock defeats it seemed the tennis Gods were smiling as the draw opened up. Yet, as he often seemed to delight in doing at Wimbledon, Murray put his fans through the wringer.
He fought back from two sets down in the quarter-final to beat Spain’s Fernando Verdasco and again found himself in trouble against Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz before winning in four.
Top seed Djokovic awaited in the final but Murray was simply too good, winning in straight sets to end a 77-year jinx for British men on the hallowed lawns.
While the scoreline was routine, the final heart-pounding game will forever live in British sporting folklore.
With 15,000 people on a baking Centre Court bellowing his name and 17 million Brits glued to TV screens around the country Murray went 40-0 ahead as he served for the title.
Djokovic clawed it back to deuce but Murray, somehow holding himself together in suffocating tension, earned a fourth match point and when his opponent netted a backhand it felt a weight was lifted off the whole country.
“It’s the hardest few points I’ve had to play in my life,” Murray said after. “That last game will be the toughest game I’ll play in my career, ever.”
Murray’s obdurate playing style, relying on superhuman defensive skills mixed with flashes of genius shot-making, all fuelled by a ferocious will to win, began to take its toll.
He required back surgery at the end of 2013 and in 2014 he did not reach a Grand Slam final for the first time since 2009.
The best was yet to come though.
In 2016 Murray reached his fifth Australian Open final and first French Open final — losing to career rival Djokovic in both. He rebounded, however, to beat Canada’s Milos Raonic to win his second Wimbledon title.
Murray then outlasted Juan Martin del Potro on a steamy Rio evening to become the first player to win two Olympic singles golds. But his hunger was still not satisfied.
Djokovic had looked immovable at the top of men’s tennis earlier that year, but Murray hunted him down.
Consecutive titles in Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna and Paris then at the ATP Finals in London, where he beat Djokovic in the final, meant Murray ended the year as the ATP’s world number one for the first time — seven years after first being ranked two.
A knighthood followed and a third BBC Sports Personality of the Year award but only he knows if that manic charge to the summit exacerbated the hip injury that will end his career.
It was not all about individual glory though.
Murray proved the ultimate team player. In 2015 he almost single-handedly delivered Britain’s first Davis Cup triumph since 1936. Never one for convention, Murray ended an unforgettable weekend in Ghent with an audacious topspin lob to seal victory against Belgium’s David Goffin.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge