He seemed on course for a sharp exit when he fell two sets behind to the Spaniard, but the 31-year-old defied the pain, and roused the Melbourne crowd, with an extraordinary comeback to take the match into a deciding fifth set before suffering a heroic 6-4 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-7 (4-7) 6-2 loss.
Battling back in the third and fourth sets took its toll on the Scot as Bautista Agut broke with ease twice in the final set to make certain that what could be Murray’s final appearance at Melbourne Park ended in the first round.
Murray wants to say farewell in July at Wimbledon — where he made history in 2013 by ending Britain’s 77-year men’s drought — but has admitted this Australian Open could be his final event.
It took Bautista Agut four hours and nine minutes to see off Murray, who received a raucous standing ovation after what the Scot described as an “incredible” match.
“If this was my last match, amazing way to end. I gave everything I had,” Murray said on court after defeat before adding that he would do “everything possible” to return to the sport.
“If I want to go again, I’ll need to have a big operation, which there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to come back from anyway, but I’ll give it my best shot,” he said.
A memorable finale
Physically, there were initial signs of improvement in his condition against the 22nd seed, who had never taken a set off Murray previously in three matches. Bautista Agut, though, did beat world No. 1 Novak Djokovic en route to winning his ninth tournament this month in Doha.
In a tightly contested first set where the Scot struggled with his first-serve percentage, Bautista Agut broke for 5-4 after saving a break point in the previous game.
Although the second set finished with the same score, Murray then began to visibly struggle, not getting lift on his ground strokes, resulting in a flurry of errors into the net.
Murray, however, had something to cheer about — as did the overwhelming majority of fans supporting him on Melbourne Arena — when he showed off his great coverage by poking a backhand winner off an angled Bautista Agut backhand to break for 2-2 in the third.
The Briton erupted, and the crowd — which included the 31-year-old’s mum Judy and brother Jamie — gave him a standing ovation. Murray’s second wind had energized everyone on what was a stifling day.
Murray pumped his fist when saving a break chance at 4-4 with a backhand down the line and even manufactured a set point at 5-4. After erring on a forehand following a lengthy exchange, the crowd groaned but he got the job done in the tiebreak, helped considerably by his serve.
In the fourth set, the Murray comeback continued. At 5-4, Bautista Agut was a game away from progressing to the second round but a hold to love from the five-time former finalist leveled matters and it needed a tiebreak to decide the outcome.
Murray raced into a 4-1 lead and held on, roaring loudly as he remarkably came out on top of yet another tiebreak. But he faltered in the fifth and though he saved match point, he was clearly struggling after giving so much in leveling the match.
More to follow.