Murray was beaten 7-5, 6-3 by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who will meet Novak Djokovic in one of two semi-finals of the Abu Dhabi exhibition event today, while Rafael Nadal takes on Spanish compatriot David Ferrer in the other.
Murray, who hadn’t played since guiding Britain back into the Davis Cup World Group with a win over Croatia in September, kept pace with Tsonga for much of the first set.
The contest went with serve to 5-6 before Tsonga converted his first break-point chance with a precise lob to take the opener.
Even to that point, Murray’s rustiness was obvious – he underwent surgery to rectify a back problem after the Croatia match – with accumulating unforced errors.
Murray came out firing in the next to immediately force a break of the Tsonga serve, but the Scot was unable to maintain his advantage and two breaks for Tsonga on successive Murray service games ensured the Frenchman wrapped up a 72-minute victory.
“The courts here are very fast and you have to react quickly,” said Murray, who will take on Stanislas Wawrinka for the scant consolation of fifth place today. “Jo was sharper than me, he served very well.
“It’s always good fun here. It’s great preparation for the season as you have to play against the best in the world.”
The Australian Open begins on 13 January and will signal the start of another year of elite men’s tennis that drips with intrigue. Not only will the “Big Four” of Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Roger Federer pick up where they left off, but talents such as Wawrinka, Ferrer and Tsonga will ensure they rarely have an easy passage to the latter stages of key tournaments.
Tsonga, 28, went into yesterday’s match with an 8-1 career deficit in competitive matches against Murray – the only blip in that head-to-head was Tsonga’s breakthrough first-round win at the 2008 Australian Open – and he was understandably satisfied to have beaten the world No 4.
“It’s not often I take two sets off Andy, even in practice,” said the Frenchman, who himself has been struggling with a knee injury.
“I was feeling fine with my body and the knee, and this win over someone like Murray is going to give me great confidence as I start the new season.”
Ferrer, who last week ended his relationship with long-time coach Javier Piles, beat Swiss Wawrinka 7-5, 6-1.
Djokovic is another player who is about to enter a new era with legendary German Boris Becker taking over from Marian Vajda as the Serb’s last line of coaching support on 13 January.