(Reuters) - Only a few months ago Austrian world number three Dominic Thiem was among the firm favourites to win the U.S. Open title but less than a week before the start of the Grand Slam in New York the 26-year-old is facing an uphill struggle.
A finalist at the Australian Open in February, pushing Novak Djokovic to five sets, this looked to be the year when Thiem would finally break his Grand Slam drought and win a major.
Twice a French Open finalist as well, Thiem has long been seen as a successor to Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
But his chances of lifting the trophy have suffered consecutive blows that have left the Austrian battling to turn things around before the tournament start on Monday.
Thiem first caused furore by refusing to contribute to an emergency fund for lower-ranked players left without work when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the season shutdown in March.
"No tennis player is fighting to survive, even those who are much lower ranked. None of them are going to starve," Thiem, who has earned prize money of $23.8 million in his career, said in April.
"There are many, many players who don't put the sport above everything else and don't live in a professional manner. I don't really see why I should give such players money."
Two months later Thiem was part of the Djokovic-organised Adria Tour, a string of charity tournaments to be played in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro in front of several thousand spectators despite the pandemic.
The tour was quickly called off following the second leg after Djokovic and several other players tested positive for the virus.
It turned into a major PR disaster for all involved, including Thiem, with videos showing players hugging at the net, playing basketball together and partying as thousands across the continent were dying of COVID-19.
Thiem eventually apologised saying the players had acted "too euphorically".
But his return to court has been equally disappointing as the second seed in the Western & Southern Open crashed out on his first match back in straight sets to Filip Krajinovic on Monday.
"It was just a horrible game for me. I could not get into the rhythm," Thiem said. "Right now it’s hard to understand, but I will think about it and I am sure I will find better answers in the next few days."
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ken Ferris)