When he’s been top of the tree for five years, it’s hard to claim that Novak Djokovic is in decline but he has certainly been far from his best during the second half of this year. Having won in Australia and Paris, a clean sweep of the Grand Slams was on the cards but it fell away with his form.
Andy Murray continued his form from Rio in crushing Lukas Rosol, so did Djokovic. Except his form was indifferent at best, during the 6 – 3, 5 – 7, 6 – 3, 6 – 1 win over Jerzy Janowicz.
However, luck may be on the turn for the Serb with his passage to the third round assured after Jiri Vesely withdrawal from the US Open due to injury. The Czech beat Djokovic on the clay of Monte Carlo earlier this year in their first ever meeting.
Vesely was expected to provide the defending champion with a stern test given his injury problems. Instead, he has three rest days and a chance to confront his own demons before facing either Guido Pella or Mikhail Youzhny.
Forced to withdraw from the Cincinnati Open last month due to injury, Djokovic called for the ATP trainer to perform repairs on his right arm during the first round match. In previous years, the Croat might have also ignored the left wrist problems he suffered against Janowicz but not this time around.
He claimed afterward that the treatment worked and that he felt stronger as the match progressed. The scoreline lends itself to that narrative. Djokovic dropped four games in the final two sets compared to ten in the opening two.
But are the injuries exacerbated by his mental state?
Prior to the tournament, the World No.1 admitted that personal issues impacted on his form at Wimbledon. That hangover continued into Rio when Juan Antonio del Potro beat him in the first round.
Speculation over the state of his marriage remains a backdrop to the US Open with journalists paying as much attention to the actions of his wife Jelena, as they are to those on the court.
Not that you would believe he was under any strain. Djokovic was joyous when talking about fatherhood and life generally. It was, he said, “a blessing to be a father and a husband”.
As the opponents become tougher, will the pressure take its toll on Djokovic or will we see the mental strength of a champion? The injury is unlikely to heal during this tournament and the strain his mind is placed could manifest physically.
His path to the final could see him face 20th seed John Isner, 9th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before Gael Monfils (10th seed) and old foe, Rafael Nadal. Each of them has their own set of questions to ask of the Number One seed.
Even so, writing the obituary on his career is premature. He is still on course to equal Roger Federer’s record of winning three majors in successive years. You don’t get to be that good by not coping with the tribulations of life at the top.