Is Novak Djokovic becoming a victim of his own lofty success?
He raised the bar to extreme heights the last few years, winning with unflinching ease and sending shivers down the spine of anyone unlucky enough to stand in his path. Like one of the human guests on the HBO show Westworld, it seemed like nobody could harm him.
But he's encountered a glitch in the programming.
Mired in a malaise since capturing his first French Open title and completing the hallowed career Grand Slam, an off-kilter Djokovic is struggling to regain his footing. The expectations reaped upon him at every tournament seem to be weighing more heavily these days, with his focus and energy visibly slipping at times.
When he left Paris, Djokovic appeared set to challenge for the rare calendar Grand Slam. Those hopes came crashing down as he bowed out of Wimbledon in the third round, barely mustering a fight against heavy underdog Sam Querrey.
"It’s been a very successful year so far, but a very long, exhausting one, in every sense of that word," Djokovic told Wimbledon.com following his defeat. "I need some rest. ... Coming into Wimbledon, I knew that mentally it would not be easy to remotivate myself."
A title in at the Rogers Cup in late July offered some encouragement that he snapped out of his emotional lull, but Djokovic still labored through a depleted Toronto draw that didn't include Andy Murray, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
His woes resurfaced when Juan Martin del Potro left him in the dust during their first-round match at the Olympics. Nursing a left wrist injury, Djokovic skipped the Western & Southern Open to recuperate before the journey to the U.S. Open.
The beneficiary of several walkovers and retirements, a wounded Djokovic navigated himself into the final. Less than 100 percent physically, Djokovic's mental game let him down more than his body. Playing passive tennis on crucial points, he vacated a one-set lead along with his crown to a resilient Stan Wawrinka.
"I lost my nerves in the important moments," Djokovic told the Associated Press (h/t Tennis.com). "He kept his cool. I think that's what decided the match.''
By now a recurring theme, Djokovic pointed to psychological difficulties after a stinging loss.
An elbow injury suffered in New York prevented Djokovic from traveling to Beijing for the China Open, but he returned in Shanghai with a fresh perspective, sounding rejuvenated by his brief sabbatical, something he touched upon to ATPWorldTour.com:
The last three months were up and down, a little bit with oscillations, but generally I didn't find that kind of satisfaction on the court, which is the very reason and the source of my motivation to play tennis... So that's my priority now, to get back into that inner joy and really feeling happy for being on the court, and everything else comes second and behind that.
That plan quickly went awry.
Requiring three sets to survive against (then) 110th-ranked Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals, frustration boiled over for a sloppy Djokovic during his 6-4, 6-4 loss to Roberto Bautista Agut in the semifinal. Unraveling at the seams, he argued with chair umpire Carlos Bernardes, ripped his shirt and violently smashed his racket to bits after dropping the first set, via Doublefault:
Making matters worse, Murray went on to win the title, pulling dangerously close in the race for year-end No. 1. Unless he quickly recaptures the magic at the BNP Paribas Masters and the World Tour Finals, Djokovic may soon relinquish his ranking.
Murray now sits just 915 points behind in the race and is dead-set on getting to No. 1. Working in his advantage is the fact that he has three events left on his 2016 schedule, while Djokovic only has two. Control of the top spot will likely come down to how they finish in London.
How will an increasingly erratic Djokovic respond to that type of pressure? Judging by his recent comments, that answer is unclear.
He said, per the Daily Mail's Stuart Fraser:
There are definitely things that I need to regain from the emotional, mental point of view. I guess I'm focusing on that more, so it's a transition somewhere in between.
I'm maybe just exhausted by the amount of matches I have had in the last 15 to 20 months. So maybe all in all that's the cause of me feeling this way.
Alluding to a feeling of being burnt out, Djokovic sounds like he wants to take time away from the game and spend more energy on his family.
"That's my priority now, to get back into that inner joy and really feeling happy for being on the court, and everything else—that comes second and behind that," Djokovic said, according to ESPN.com's Sandra Harwitt.
But he doesn't have the privilege of soul-searching right now, not with Murray breathing down his neck.
Confidence is something that appears to be lacking from his arsenal. Whereas in past years he had an uncanny knack for lifting his game as the stakes rose, he hasn't been able to flip that switch since his triumphant spring fortnight in Paris.
In the offseason, Djokovic may need to tweak his future scheduling to allow for more breaks during the long calendar. Anything to keep himself fresh and hungry.
A coaching change would be a drastic maneuver, but he's been noncommittal on the subject of whether Boris Becker will return to his camp next year.
Any such decisions can wait until after the World Tour Finals. His priority in the interim should be on taking it one match at a time and trying to regain his composure. If he can't, Djokovic will enter 2017 staring up at his Scottish rival.
All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.
Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.