THINGS don’t get any easier for Andy Murray. On the day he took just two games off Novak Djokovic in a practice match on Margaret Court arena, the three-time Grand Slam winner and former World No 1 had the misfortune to be handed a strenuous first-round Australian Open assignment against Spain’s Roberto Bautista-Agut.

While the 31-year-old Scot has won all three of his previous meetings against a man who previously graced the youth ranks of Villarreal and would usually fancy his chances, Bautista-Agut is coming off one of the biggest weeks of his career, having taken care of none other than Djokovic as he claimed the Qatar Exxon Mobile Open in Doha last week. By contrast, most observers who were granted privileged access to this all-star exhibition match spoke of their concern about the Scot’s laboured movement after this practice hit, which stood at 6-1, 4-1 in Djokovic’s favour when time was called.

Murray has played just two tour matches since shutting down his 2018 season early to concentrate on further intensive rehab work on that troublesome hip of his at a specialist centre in Philadelphia, a first round win against Jack Duckworth in Brisbane before he came a cropper against World No 16 Daniil Medvedev. That tell-tale limp was back in evidence between points yesterday in what was a re-match of four previous Aussie Open finals. But having spoken in emotional terms about the difficulties of playing through the pain barrier, at least his sense of humour seemed to be intact.

The Scot apologised to a supporter on Instagram afterwards, saying ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be more entertaining today’, then pledged to give her a ticket for his first-round encounter. When Djokovic conceded the point when one of only two winners off the ground during the whole season was called just long by the umpire, Murray earned a few laughs from the crowd by saying ‘you wouldn’t have done that if it is was a final’.

Should Murray – in the same half of the draw as Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal - overcome Bautista-Agut, the likes of home favourite John Millman and the highly-rated Karen Khachanov of Russia lie in wait. Cam Norrie is pitted against his doubles partner Taylor Fritz, a man who he beat in Auckland this week, while Kyle Edmund – a 2018 semi-finalist here - has a tough opener against Doha runner-up Tomas Berdych. Djokovic could have a re-run of a previous final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as early as the second round.In the women’s event, Jo Konta – also a former semi-finalist at this venue -faces adopted Aussie Alja Tomljanovic, while No 16 seed Serena Williams starts against her fellow mum, Tatjana Maria of Germany.