Murray finds spark before long-awaited return to Melbourne Park

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Tennis - ATP 250 - Melbourne Summer Set - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 4, 2022 Britain's Andy Murray in action during his round of 32 match against Argentina's Facundo Bagnis REUTERS/Loren Elliott

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MELBOURNE, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Tears, pain and a defiant five-set loss marked Andy Murray's last appearance at the Australian Open but the Scot will stroll Melbourne Park's grounds with a positive outlook for the first time in three years.

On Sunday, Murray played his first ATP final since Antwerp in 2019. Although he lost in straight sets to Russian bruiser Aslan Karatsev at the Sydney Tennis Classic, it was an encouraging start to the year for the Briton.

"There are many positive things to having good runs in these tournaments," Murray told reporters.

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"I didn't have to worry so much about that before."

Since major surgery on his troublesome hip in 2019, little has come easy to the 34-year-old who won the last of his three Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 2016.

His last match at Melbourne Park was a grinding five-set defeat by Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut where he gave everything he had.

At his pre-match media conference, he had sobbed uncontrollably, revealing his hip pain was so bad that he thought his career might be over.

Another fitness setback saw him miss the 2020 tournament and last year it was a COVID-19 infection and Australia's strict 14-day quarantine rule that scuttled his return.

Now, he arrives at Melbourne Park with a wildcard and a ranking outside the top 100, a far cry from his halcyon days as a feared competitor who reached the final five times.

He faces Georgia's 21st seed Nikoloz Basilashvili in the first round on Tuesday and is glad for the momentum built in Sydney heading into a tricky opening clash.

"I have put so much work and effort into getting back into these positions and to be competing for tournaments again," said Murray.

"It's not a goal of mine to get to a specific ranking, like in the next year.

"But improving your ranking and getting yourself up into the top 50, top 30, top 20, (it) allows you to be seeded in tournaments."

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Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Ed Osmond

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