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By Erik Gudris

Djokovic Italian Open (May 22, 2013) -- World No. 1 Novak Djokovic will celebrate his birthday as he does every year at this time -- preparing for the French Open.

But despite coming in as the event's top seed, last year's finalist enters with some question marks hanging over his head as he attempts to win for the first time at Roland Garros and complete a rare career "Grand Slam". The clay court season leading into Paris has been a mixed bag for Djokovic with some impressive victories and some uncharacteristic early round losses.

At Monte-Carlo, Djokovic dethroned Rafael Nadal ending the Spaniard's vice-like grip on the event having won the title eight times in a row. By winning the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters, Djokovic looked ready to challenge Nadal both in Madrid and Rome as each man became the two early favorites for Paris.

But that never happened. Djokovic found himself exiting Madrid early after losing a tight battle to Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov. In that match, Djokovic slightly tweaked the ankle he injured during the Serbia versus U.S. Davis Cup tie in Boise, Idaho. Though there was some speculation about his physical condition, Djokovic instead focused on the upcoming Italian Open.

In Rome, Djokovic looked on the verge of setting up a much anticipated semifinal showdown with Nadal. But again it wasn't meant to be. While up a set and 5-2 against Tomas Berdych, Djokovic found himself distracted more by what he thought was a "hole" in the Foro Italico court than on his opponent.

That loss in concentration allowed Berdych to mount an improbable comeback and eventually take the match from Djokovic in three sets. Nadal later went on to defend his Italian Open title and thus assure himself a top four seed in Paris.

The unexpected defeats at two events he has won in the past has some wondering if Djokovic is perhaps putting too much pressure on himself to finally raise the trophy in Paris. But the consensus of late is that these breaks may actually help the World No. 1 in his quest more than hinder him.

"He’s the kind of player who does not get down on himself because of a loss," said ESPN tennis analyst Cliff Drysdale on a recent call to promote the network's French Open coverage. "The things that he says, his thought processes are kind of like Andre Agassi who talked about enjoying the journey, the process, of getting to places on a tennis court. I just think that, no, it doesn’t hurt him. If anything, losing early gives him a little more rest. I don’t think it hurts Djokovic. If it would have hurt him any way, it would have been mentally for him to say, Oh, gee, I’m not playing as well. I don’t think he’s susceptible to that kind of thinking."

Djokovic's recent statements that he wants to win Paris more than anything is a positive sign for his chances says seven-time French Open and ESPN analyst Chris Evert.

"He’s gone on record saying that the French Open is the most important tournament for him this year. I just think that speaks for itself. I think whatever has happened before, he does have a win over Nadal this year. Whatever has happened, I think he’s going to erase the losses and go into this fresh. He wants this one badly, very much like a Maria Sharapova wanted the French last year. In saying that, that I think is going to give him more motivation."

For a man who has almost everything, Djokovic probably doesn't want for much on his birthday. Though he probably took some time to celebrate blowing out the 26 candles on his cake, gluten free of course, that didn't stop him from his usual routine this time every year. Today, Djokovic was seen out on Court Philippe Chatrier getting in some early practice as he once again takes aim for the one trophy missing from his overflowing mantle of tennis riches.

(Photo Credit: Astutephoto.com)

 

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