Rafael Nadal gets off to strong start at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – If this was it for Andy Murray, if this truly was it, he gave himself — and an appreciative, raucous crowd that included his mother and brother — quite a gutsy goodbye.

What Murray could not quite do Monday at the Australian Open was finish off a stirring comeback and prolong what might just be the final tournament of his career.

Playing on a surgically repaired right hip so painful that pulling on socks is a chore, he summoned the strength and strokes to erase a big deficit and force a fifth set before eventually succumbing to 22nd-seeded Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-2, Murray’s first opening-round loss at a Grand Slam tournament in 11 years.

“If this was my last match … I gave literally everything I had,” Murray told a full house at Melbourne Arena, his voice shaking. “It wasn’t enough tonight.”

Murray, just 31, is a year removed from the operation and he announced in the days leading up to the Australian Open that he will retire in 2019. The biggest looming question is whether he’d be able to make it to July for Wimbledon, where he won two of his three major titles, including the first for a British man in 77 years.

He had raised the prospect that he might not be able to continue past this week, although he did leave a bit of room open, saying after Monday’s match: “Maybe I’ll see you again. I’ll do everything possible to try. If I want to go again, I’ll need to have a big operation (and) there’s no guarantees I’ll be able to come back, anyway.”

Even with a hitch in his gait, even as he leaned forward to rest his hands on knees between points, Murray summoned the strength and the strokes to push the match beyond the 4-hour mark.

And the fans tried to will him past Bautista Agut, who had lost in straight sets all three previous matches the two men had played.

They roared when Murray managed to break back to 2-all on the way to taking the third set, with his mom, Judy, smiling widely as she stood alongside other spectators. They chanted his name when he grabbed the fourth set. They stood when the compelling contest ended.

“Andy deserves this atmosphere. Andy deserves (that) all the people came to watch him,” Bautista Agut said. “He’s a tough, tough fighter. A tough opponent. He gives everything until the last point. I want to congratulate him for all he did for tennis.”

Rafael Nadal, for his part, showed no sign of the rust he had supposedly accumulated since dropping out of the U.S. Open in September.

The No. 2-seeded Nadal had a 6-4, 6-3, 7-5 win over Australian wild-card entry James Duckworth on Monday in the first round of the Australian Open, his first match back at Rod Laver Arena since he had to retire during his quarterfinal match last year.

The 17-time major winner hasn’t played since retiring from his semifinal at the U.S. Open because of a knee injury, and then had surgery on his right ankle in November.

“Not easy to come back after a lot of months of competition, especially against a player playing super aggressive every shot,” Nadal said. “It’s very difficult to start after an injury — I know it very well.

“So that’s an important victory because is the first victory since a while, and at the same time, because that gives me the chance to be on court again.”

Wearing a sleeveless top, Nadal showed no signs of any issues against Duckworth. His only hiccup came when he served for the match in the ninth game of the third set and was broken. He returned the favor quickly, though, to seal his spot in the second round.

Yoshihito Nishioka won his first-round match at the Australian Open for the third straight year.

The 23-year-old, ranked 65th in the world, knocked out 27-year-old American Tennys Sandgren 6-4, 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-4 in 3 hours, 12 minutes.

“I’m incredibly happy to be able to hang on and win a close match against an opponent of his caliber,” Nishioka said. “In crucial situations, I attacked and hit winners.

“My target this year is to reach the third round at Grand Slams, and I want to reach that goal.”

Tatsuma Ito, on the other hand, crashed out in the first round in straight sets.

Ito, ranked 151st in the world, lost to fellow qualifier Daniel Evans of Britain 7-5, 6-1, 7-6(10-8) in 2 hours, 35 minutes. The 28-year-old Evans is ranked 189th.

“To compete here, one needs to be at the next level of toughness,” Ito said.

Also advancing on the men’s side were No. 5 Kevin Anderson, No. 14 Stefanos Tsitsipas, no. 18 Diego Schwartzman, No. 19 Nikoloz Basilashvili, No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov, No. 26 Fernando Verdasco and No. 27 Alex de Minaur

Maria Sharapova started with a 6-0, 6-0 win over Harriet Dart. No. 2-ranked Angelique Kerber, the 2016 Australian Open champion, opened with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Polona Hercog.

Stung by a first-round loss at Wimbledon last year, 2008 Australian Open champion Sharapova said she couldn’t afford to feel any empathy for Dart.

“There is no time for that, I’m sorry to say … when you’re playing the first round of a Grand Slam,” said Sharapova, who is still feeling pain in her right shoulder despite sitting out the end of last season after the U.S. Open. “I think I was just focused on not having a letdown.”

Also advancing were 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, No. 9 Kiki Bertens, No. 11 Aryna Sabalenka, No. 19 Caroline Garcia, No. 20 Anett Kontaveit, No. 24 Lesia Tsurenko, No. 29 Donna Vekic and No. 31 Petra Martic.