MELBOURNE — On the opening day of the Australian Open, Andy Murray showed the heart of a champion as he forced himself to ignore his pain long enough to play five sets before surrendering to Roberto Bautista Agut in the first round.
Bautista Agut had never before captured a set off of Murray in three previous matches. But those times he played a different Murray, a player who hadn’t been enduring a serious hip injury for close to two years.
Initially, it seemed that Murray, uncomfortable and limping, would be ushered quickly to the exit by the Spaniard.
But while the 31-year-old has lost the physical prowess he once enjoyed, he still possesses the temerity and desire that goes with being a Grand Slam champion. So it took Bautista Agut more than four hours to prevail 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2. To the end, Murray fought, saving a match point on his own service game in the seventh game of the fifth set, thereby forcing the Spaniard to serve for the win.
After abandoning a practice session earlier in the week with Novak Djokovic because he was in too much pain, Murray announced Friday that his career would conclude at some time this season. His grand plan is that moment will come at Wimbledon, where he became the first British man in 77 years to win the title in 2013, and then took the honors again in 2016.
But he also indicated his time in the game could come to its conclusion here at the Australian Open and offered a sliver of hope he might decide to try another operation to see if that could help.
Fans were yelling to Murray that they loved him throughout the match, and tournament officials played farewell messages from fellow players on the big screen once it was over, which came across as a nice, but awkward gesture considering he hasn’t announced this was officially the end of his career.
“Amazing,” said Murray, clearly choked up as he addressed the crowd. “That was incredible. Thank you, oh so much to everyone who came out tonight. I’ve loved playing here over the years.
“If this was my last match it was an amazing way to end,” he added. “Thanks to everyone throughout my career. Maybe I’ll see you again. I’ll do everything possible, I’d have to have a big operation and there’s no guarantee (it will work), but I’ll give it my best shot.”
In his post-match news conference, Murray said he’s deciding between resting for four months and then training to play a final match at Wimbledon or to immediately pursue having joint replacement surgery. The surgery could work well enough to allow him to play again, but at least it should make every-day activities such as walking his dogs more bearable.
He has spoken extensively with Bob Bryan, who had steel hip replacement in August and is scheduled to play here at the Australian Open with his brother, Mike.
“I could play another match, but if I want to try to play again, I want to improve my quality of life, because even if I take four months (off), I still can’t walk,” Murray said. “I’m still in pain doing just basic day-to-day things.
“But having an operation like that, there’s absolutely no guarantees I’d be able to play again. I’m fully aware of that. It’s a really big operation. But there is the possibility, because guys have done it before. Bob Bryan is doing it just now. That’s kind of the decision I have to make, that possibility of not having one more match by having the operation.
“If today was my last match, look, it was a brilliant way to finish. That’s something that I’ll probably take into consideration, as well.”
In a career guaranteed to land him in the Hall of Fame, Murray won three Grand Slam titles with the first coming at the 2012 US Open and back-to-back Olympic gold medals. He became the first British man to rank No. 1 in October 2016.
Bautista Agut weighed in with his tribute to his opponent on the court: “It was an unbelievable match and he gave good fight. He deserved all the atmosphere and all the fans who came to watch him play. He fought to the last point.”
There were definite flashes of the brilliance Murray once showcased: the trademark backhand down the line, the big crosscourt forehand.
When Murray finally found himself with a break point with Bautista Agut serving at 2-1 in the third set, he managed to dart around the court to hit a crafty backhand drop shot. The break secured, Murray raised his hands in victory and the crowd offered what would become the first of a number of standing ovations.
Last year, Murray journeyed to the Australian Open, where he’d previously reached five finals, in hopes of playing. It would’ve been his first major since 2017 Wimbledon. But instead of banging balls on the court, he ended up spending his time in Melbourne going under the knife.
In 2018, Murray played six tournaments, and only eight events since Wimbledon in 2017. Murray won the last of his 45 titles at the 2017 Dubai tournament, which took place in February of that year.