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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Andy Murray needs to be honest with himself on fitness as he faces Ryan Harrison in Brisbane

The three-time major winner faces his first competitive match since July on Wednesday with doubts still lingering on his health.

Andy Murray struggled when he played an exhibition set at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. Martin Dokoupil / EPA
Andy Murray struggled when he played an exhibition set at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. Martin Dokoupil / EPA

Andy Murray's appearance at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi on Friday was an unexpected bonus for both the player and the crowd at the International Tennis Stadium at Zayed Sports City.

The former world No 1 had not played a competitive match since Wimbledon in July due to his hip injury, and the exhibition set he played against Roberto Bautista Agut was a useful test of just where he is both in terms of a physical state and his game ahead of the 2018 season.

Murray was convincingly beaten by Bautista Agut, the world No 20, 6-2 in the exhibition clash, which had come about after Murray stepped in after Novak Djokovic's last-minute withdrawal from the tournament.

He had only been in Abu Dhabi to use the practice courts for a session with his support team as they broke up the journey from Britain to Brisbane for the start of the ATP season.

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While difficult to quantify the competitive levels in an exhibition, Murray clearly looked like a man who had not played a lot of tennis as he struggled against Bautista Agut.

Murray improved as the match went on, perhaps understandably as his timing got better with more time on court, but his movement left a lot to be desired and he appeared uncomfortable physically, grimacing at regular intervals.

The challenge with making any assessment on Murray's physical condition is that even at his peak he has often had the body language of a man in trouble when he is actually fine.

He has always been something of an enigma on that front, so that is why it is hard to have a true read on what shape his body is in.

Things will become a lot clearer on Wednesday when Murray goes up against American Ryan Harrison in the second round of the Brisbane International.

Given how he looked on court in Abu Dhabi, it will be an impressive feat for Murray to beat the world No 47, who beat Leonardo Mayer in his first-round match on Monday.

If Murray loses, and struggles to compete against Harrison, it will be a reality check on just where the Briton is with less than two weeks until the Australian Open.

From Murray's point of view, the only way he will know if he is capable of competing in Melbourne is with game time against players who are not training partners.

That was why the Bautista Agut encounter was so useful, even if to Murray fans it was probably demoralising to see him struggle to be competitive against a man whom he has beaten on all three competitive occasions.

It is important that Murray, now No 16 in the ATP rankings, is honest with himself as to how his body holds up to taking on Harrison.

If his hip is still giving him issues then he needs to think if playing is really the right thing for him at this time.

He sounded bullish about his fitness in a news conference in Brisbane on Sunday, saying: "Unless something happens the next couple of days, I don't see myself not playing because of my hip.

"I feel I need to play matches to see exactly where it's at. Practising and doing everything in the gym is great but playing matches is what I need."

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The challenge for Murray is that to play a number of matches in Brisbane he needs to win, and it will be interesting to see if he tries to schedule more exhibition action next week ahead of the first grand slam of the year.

Murray is a five-time finalist in Melbourne and he has usually been a force there.

He has confessed to missing competing, but it is hard to believe he would be happy simply to be in Australia to make up the numbers.

Wimbledon in July is arguably his best chance of getting a fourth major title and he should be smart enough to plan his schedule accordingly to peak around that period.

If Murray is pain-free then playing Australia is sensible, even if he does have an early exit, in getting more time on court under his belt, as long as there is a sense of realism on how far in the tournament he can go.

But if he is not right, and he did not look right either in practice on in action against Bautista Agut, then he needs to listen to his body and give it more time.

It is going to be an important couple of weeks in how 2018 is likely going to pan out for Murray. He needs to be honest with himself to make sure he does not make things worse rather than better.

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