Andy Murray only seeing the positives after confidence-boosting showing in Melbourne

Andy Murray Australian Open - AFP/William West
Andy Murray Australian Open - AFP/William West  

Andy Murray has now faced Roberto Bautista Agut twice at the Australian Open, and both times he has been battling his own body as well as one of the most consistent hitters in the game.

But at least Murray came away from Saturday's four-set defeat in better spirits than he did their 2019 meeting, which ended in a retirement video being played on the big screen.

That was the year when Murray was on the point of packing it all in, only to risk everything on one last spin of the dice when he flew back to London to undergo resurfacing surgery on his right hip.

Amazingly, that procedure - which involves the insertion of a metal ball-and-socket joint - has worked so well that Murray is now outperforming all expectations. Unlike any previous resurfacing patient, he has recovered his ability to play singles at the highest level.

"I can have a deeper run than the third round of a slam, there's no question about that," said Murray after his 6-1, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4 defeat on Margaret Court Arena, which owed much to the accumulated weariness of more than 14 hours on the match court.

"Tonight I'm competing against a guy [ranked] 20 in the world, and it's still very tight considering the circumstances. I'm disappointed because I feel like I could have gone quite a bit further."

Adny Murray Australian Open - Reuters/Carl Recine
Adny Murray Australian Open - Reuters/Carl Recine  

Admittedly, Murray's run to the third round might have felt more like a limp by the time Bautista Agut had converted his first match point. But it was still a gigantic leap forward by comparison with where he was as recently as November.

At the Paris Masters - his final tournament of 2022 - Murray played some horrible stuff, by his own high standards. Afflicted by recurring cramps throughout the second half of last season, he finished the year by throwing away a winning position against 37-year-old Gilles Simon - a man he had dominated in his prime.

That was the cue for a back-to-basics boot camp in Boca Raton on the outskirts of Miami, in which he spent three weeks doing nothing but eat, sleep and work on his game.

He returned from this eyeballs-out training block ready for a fresh tilt at the tour. British No 2 Dan Evans was among the first people in Melbourne to realise how Murray was feeling when he received an upbeat text on the eve of this tournament. As Evans explained: "He messaged me saying, 'Yeah, [I've done] some good work'. Obviously he feels he's hitting the ball well if he gives himself a compliment."

That confidence was borne out when Murray edged out Matteo Berrettini in a first-round thriller, then pushed through the longest match of his career to defeat Thanasi Kokkinakis on Thursday night.

Even if the accumulated fatigue left him with no realistic chance against a player as complete as Bautista Agut, the level of his performances still hinted at what he might be able to do with a kinder draw. Now he will be looking to halve his ranking - which will probably stand at around No 62 after this event - in time to earn a seeding for Wimbledon.

"Obviously draws can open up for you," Murray said. "I need to also help myself with that. If I was playing at this level last year, I probably wouldn't be ranked 50, 60 in the world. It's up to me to try to change that.

"I put loads of work into the beginning of this year and was playing well enough to have a really deep run."

His frustrations will only be deepened by the open state of the draw. Had he been fresh enough to play Bautista Agut without the handicap of intense lower-back pain, Murray could have found himself as the only proven player in a bottom quarter that also includes three Americans - all newbies at this level - in Ben Shelton, JJ Wolf and Tommy Paul.

Again, though, he will surely turn this experience into extra motivation. There are likely to be some real opportunities in the next year or two, as tennis realigns in the wake of the "Big Four" era.

Andy Murray Australian Open - Reuters/Carl Recine
Andy Murray Australian Open - Reuters/Carl Recine  

"You never know exactly when the end is going to be," said Murray, who is looking to play through the whole of this season at the very least. "I would like to go out playing tennis like this, where I'm competing with the best players in the world in the biggest events and doing myself justice."

His next commitment is likely to be the indoor tournament in Rotterdam which starts on February 11. His body will therefore have three weeks to recover from the intense stresses of the past few days. Fortunately, he does not seem to have picked up any specific injuries apart from multiple blisters and extreme soreness all over his body, particularly in that lower back.

"My movement here was really good," he said. "That's something that at times hasn't been great the last 12, 18 months. It's really important for me. When I move well, it allows me to play the game style that is most effective for me.

"I finished a lot of points up at the net during this event, which was really positive.

"Someone sent me a screen grab. I think of all the players that were playing, I'd finished the most amount of points up at the net and finished a lot of points with winners. So, yeah, there were a number of things I was pleased with in my game."


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