Happy Birthday, Novak! Now 31, Djokovic is hitting his stride again

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“I don’t think that there was too much of a difference between me and Rafa, which is great for me, great news for me,” Novak Djokovic said after their Rome semifinal. (AP)

Tuesday is a special day for one of the all-time greats of the game, as 12-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, celebrates his birthday, turning 31 years old.

That shouldn’t be all he’s celebrating right now. After missing the second half of the 2017 season with an elbow injury, Djokovic had a difficult first four months of the 2018 season, losing before the quarterfinals of all six tournaments he played, including the Australian Open, which he's won six times.

But this past week in Rome, the Serb was in vintage form, making it all the way to the semifinals and going toe to toe with Rafael Nadal for nearly two hours before falling, 7-6 (4) 6-3.

Djokovic, a one-time French Open champion and three-time Wimbledon winner, is rediscovering his best tennis again just in time for the second and third Grand Slam tournaments of the year.

“I don’t think that there was too much of a difference between me and Rafa, which is great for me, great news for me,” Djokovic said after their semifinal. “Rafa is, of course, the best player ever to play tennis on clay court. And he’s in great, great form. And it’s very difficult to play him on clay anywhere.

“But all in all it was a really good quality match. I can only take positives from this week.”

Djokovic is projected to be the 21st seed at Roland Garros:

Today’s Djokovic is a far cry from the player we saw in Indian Wells and Miami, where he lost back-to-back openers.

“It’s not only a process for my game but it’s a mental process, as well, to get back into that match play," Djokovic said. "You need to play matches to get back that level of confidence to compete with these kinds of guys who are the best players in the world, and to have a chance to compete for the biggest trophies.

“I’d never faced this kind of situation before. I thought it wouldn’t take long to get back to the winning ways. But the contrary actually happened and I had to learn a lesson and accept the circumstances.

“But looking back two or three months, this is the best I’ve felt on the court, by far.”

It’s not like 31 is old in tennis years, either—the last six Grand Slam men’s titles have been won by players aged 31 or over (Stan Wawrinka, Roger Federer and Nadal). And a year ago at this time, the entire Top 5 was in their 30s (Andy Murray, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Nadal and Federer).

“It’s impossible to always be at your best,” Nadal said of Djokovic. “And especially when you have injuries, the comebacks are not easy. I know that. We can’t forget he came back from a long injury.

“Don’t have any doubt that if Novak wants to play, he’ll be back at his best,” the world No. 1 added.

“He’s too good not to be there.”

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