For someone who had been having the perfect year, Novak Djokovic is having a horrendous year.

Going into what should have been a routine fourth-round match against Pablo Carrena Busta at the US Open on Sunday, the Serbian’s form sheet for 2020 was a row of 26 W’s. Now, the travelling press circus will remain hitched to a solitary, controversial L for some time. 

After a frustrating first set, trailing 6-5 following a break, he petulantly flicked the ball behind him and struck a line judge in the throat. A seven-minute discussion over the accident gave way to disqualification for the three-time champion. Match Carrena Busta. Cue explosions.

The debate rages on over the severity of his punishment, only the fifth singles disqualification ever from a Grand Slam - some football fans reckon the lineswoman warranted a yellow card for diving while notable skelper Nick Kyrgios pondered online how many years he would have been banned for were it he who held the smoking racquet.

Many have come to the defence of Djokovic, pointing out that the blow wasn’t intentional. Some Twitter users also seem to have taken offence to the fact that the official hit the deck. Of course, when Stefanos Tsitsipas aims a forehand at the Adam’s apple of @Djokofan69 while he’s looking out the fabric conditioner at Morrisons, the big man always shrugs it off and gets on with the shopping.

The rule remains that deliberate or not, whether the end result ranges from a mild bruise to a full decapitation, striking a ball ‘dangerously or recklessly within the court, or with negligent disregard of the consequences’ leaves you staring down the barrel of a default. As steadfast for a temper tantrum from a top 200 player during a night session on Court No.5 as it should be for a bonafide legend under the bright lights of the Arthur Ashe.

HeraldScotland: Novak Djokovic debates with the umpireNovak Djokovic debates with the umpire

As the tweeting masses were quick to point out, this is not the first time Djokovic has vented his anger in this way, and that an incident like this has been coming. Digging into the archives produced a clip of a press conference at the ATP Finals in 2016 where the Serb skewered a journalist who dared question whether whacking balls astray might not be the brightest idea. “You guys are unbelievable,” Djokovic replied. “I keep doing these things? Why don’t I get suspended then?” Be careful what you wish for.

The 33-year-old is not the only player to regularly release his ire on the fuzzy yellow arbiter during matches though, and this could easily have happened to any number of fiery colleagues in the heat of the moment. At least he was the first over to check the woman, whose name bizarrely remains undisclosed, and he was quick to release an apologetic if rather generic statement last night.

What Djokovic did not do is attend the press conference after the match, opting to escape New York before the inquest began. And therein lies the main chink in an otherwise impenetrable armour. For all his talents and achievements, he has been beaten time and again off the court this year by his team’s PR management, often in straight sets.

The defeats have been embarrassing ones. In April during the initial throes of the pandemic, Djokovic outed himself as an anti-vaxxer (his views on the Tooth Fairy have not been broached at time of print). In June he was one of the masterminds pulling the strings behind the ill-fated Adria Tour, a series of exhibitions held across the Balkan states during the ATP’s coronavirus shutdown. Hindsight may be 20/20, but in this case foresight was too. The much-criticised venture resulted in a clutch of players testing positive, including Djokovic himself. The final was cancelled.

At best, the decision to go ahead with the series was seen as boneheaded, but when footage appeared of him amongst shirtless players bouncing about on the lash at a sweaty Croatian nightclub, sympathy was even less forthcoming.

And that’s not to mention his dalliance with revolution, forming the Professional Tennis Players’ Association in an attempt to reroute more proportionate prize funds straight into the pockets of the players. An admirable cause perhaps, but inarguably ill-timed and much-criticised for the omission of female players in the coup.

The paradox is a familiar one for those who have followed the career of Djokovic. Undeniable yet unloved, admired but never adored, the clinical Serb has won 17 Grand Slam but still struggles to win the hearts of tennis fans. The grace and poise of Federer, raw intensity of Nadal or never-say-die spirit of Murray always seem to win out in the gallery. His glassy personality provides few footholds for fans to cling on to with any conviction.

In the world’s loneliest sport, the people around you off court take on paramount importance in guiding your decisions and helping you see the bigger picture. Perhaps the people who should be huckling him into conferences and ironing out his profile in the media should take the blame. Still 33, and with Federer bound to shuffle off at some point (surely?), there are years left in the tank for the rule of a beloved dictator.

Then again, perhaps such trivialities matter little to Djokovic. Perhaps when he gets home at the end of the week, hangs up his racquet and takes a full 10 minutes to sidle past his bulging trophy cabinet, he is at peace with his legacy. Perhaps. But an all-time great deserves better.

In their designated director's boxes within the bubble at Flushing Meadows though, the men’s draw will have sat up and took notice of the vacuum. With the withdrawal of Federer and Nadal before the tournament, this was already their best chance to strike a blow for the next generation. 

Now we are guaranteed a new Grand Slam winner, be it one of the wonder kids or a complete dark horse. I like whoever survives tonight’s blockbuster bout between the elastic Felix-Auger Aliassime and champion-in-waiting Dominic Thiem to go the distance, and as much as he did Scotland proud, Andy Murray may well be sitting at home kicking himself at a chance missed…