It used to be that Andy Murray was the one who couldn't stay at the top of his game throughout the entirety of a Grand Slam schedule. It used to be that he was the one who couldn't hold on to win five sets in a major.
Now, in the aftermath of his U.S. Open victory—his first Grand Slam—Murray seems to have defeated those demons.
And now, against all odds, they seem to be the very same demons facing Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic's effort in Monday's U.S. Open final was admirable. He fought back after losing the first two sets and dominated Andy Murray in the third and fourth. But when it mattered most—in the fifth set—Murray was simply better. Way better. In the end, he had a 7-6 (12-10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2 victory to show for it.
To say Djokovic can't get the job done anymore is a bit unfair. This is one of the best tennis players in the world. This is somebody who has won five Grand Slams, three of which came in succession: the 2011 Wimbledon title, the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 Australian Open.
Nobody is saying that Djokovic is no longer one of the top four players in the world; it's just that for a while, he was conclusively the best. He was No. 1. And lately, he's not even playing like No. 2.
Lately, that is the unquestionable reality that faces Djokovic. In the last three majors, he's been the runner-up twice and he's finished in the semifinals once.
That role used to be Murray's. In a four-major stretch that lasted from the 2011 French Open until the 2012 Australian Open, he made it to consecutive semifinals but never managed to do better. Some blamed it on age and maturity; some blamed it on a lack of focus; some blamed it on the fact that he simply wasn't as good as Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. Yet.
Clearly, that's no longer the case. He's beaten Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, and he beat him a month ago in the Olympic semis. He then beat Federer in the Olympic finals. Whatever was keeping Murray from competing with the best of the best for so long, he has officially defeated.
And now, instead of Murray, Djokovic is the one dealing with the unpleasant questions:
How much longer before he beats Murray, or Nadal or Federer again when it counts?
How much longer before he gets back to No. 1?
How much longer before he wins another Grand Slam? ... Or will he?
Judging by the way he ended 2011 and began 2012, this isn't a situation in which we expected to find Djokovic in September. We don't know what happened. We don't know whether he has regressed, or whether everyone else in the top four has just gotten better.
But whatever the answer to that question may be, Djokovic now heads into the long stretch in between the U.S. Open and the Australian Open in the last place he wanted to be. Now the pressure has four more months to build, and those questions have four more months to percolate.
It's possible that those months will be good for Djokovic; perhaps he'll find himself revitalized by the time his next opportunity for a Grand Slam comes around.
It all depends on how he handles the kind of pressure that comes with wondering whether he'll ever get back to where he was a year ago at this time.