WHO will be the king of clay this fortnight in Paris? Mark Stinchcombe (@markstinchcombe) assess the draws and gives us his picks.
French Open | Men’s Outright | 22nd May – 5th June
Novak Djokovic continues his search for a Roland Garros title to complete the Grand Slam as heavy 9/10 favourite. However, it hasn’t been the all-conquering Serb we’ve been used to since the Australian Open.
In Dubai he had to retire against Feliciano Lopez in the quarter-final with an eye problem, a rarity for Djokovic, having not retired since the September of his super-human year in 2011.
In the Davis Cup in March, he had to fight back from two-sets-to-one down to win against Mikhail Kukushkin in a battle that lasted nearly five hours after numerous unforced errors in which he cited ”This is probably the most psychologically and physically difficult match in my career.”
He progressed to win Indian Wells, although not comfortably, having to suffer some tight first sets, including losing the first one 6-2 to world number 149 Bjorn Frantangelo having been 4-0 down. It was slightly more comfortable in winning Miami, although there weren’t the usual big set wins on the American hard courts.
The beginning of the clay court swing began disastrously losing at the first hurdle to Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo, his first defeat to a player outside the top 50 since losing to then number 74 Xavier Malisse in 2010.
He re-asserted himself with victory in Madrid but in Rome he was very much under-par with once again some strange 1st set showings. He narrowly beat 20/1 shot Stephane Robert 7-5 7-5 before being bagelled by Thomaz Bellucci! He recovered to win the match before going a break down to Rafael Nadal then coming back to squeeze through 7-5 7-6.
In the semi-final it was more of the same dropping the 1st set 6-2 to Kei Nishikori before eventually prevailing in a final set tie-break. However, he wasn’t going to get away with it against Andy Murray who comfortably won 6-3 6-3.
It’s too simplistic to say because he only lost once on clay last year in the final to Stan Wawrinka that he won’t win this year because he’s already lost twice, but he certainly can’t be as short as 8/11 in a tournament he’s never won in eleven attempts on a surface he’s least comfortable on as his showings have proved.
Three-time semi-finalist Andy Murray, has now won 29 of his last 32 clay court matches after winning his 1st title on the dirt in Munich last year, to go alongside his Madrid and now Rome conquests as well as winning the final of the Davis Cup.
Only Djokovic and Nadal twice have prevented Murray from progressing from the semi-finals here and with both of them in the top half and the Scot finally showing consistently great tennis on the surface, this surely represents his best chance to date. He was 8/1 before the final last weekend, and such was the victory and draw since, his odds have nearly halved.
With Nishikori his likely quarter-final opponent (Murray leads 6-1 head-to-head) and reigning champion Stan Wawrinka awaiting in the semi’s (9-7 H2H) before a likely showdown with Djokovic, it begs the question is 4/1 good enough value?
Given I feel as though both Murray and Serena Williams hold some value but not necessarily enough for a single, I will be backing them both in a 16/1 double.
Rafael Nadal is third in the betting at 11/2 and is certainly showing some improvements on his game from last year. He’s tightened up the errors and is playing with improved confidence.
After the Australian Open ‘Viasco’ (see what I did there? :D) he suffered disappointing final set semi-final defeats on the South American clay courts to Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires and Pablo Cuevas in Rio de Janeiro. Indian Wells was up and down and he was fortunate to make the semi’s where he probably should have taken the 1st set off Djokovic before losing. Miami’s loss was a result of illness rather than not playing well.
From here Nadal proceeded to fairly impressively wrap up Monte Carlo and Barcelona dropping just two sets. However, he was helped by some poor play by his opponents, and things could have been very different had Thiem taken one of the sixteen break points (16) he was afforded in set one in round three in Monaco for example.
And when his opponents did turn up, he failed to take a set in defeats to the top two in Murray and Djokovic in Madrid and Rome respectively. With Nadal in probably the toughest quarter with various pitfalls as well as being in the same half as Djokovic, he’s a very weak third favourite for me.
Current champion Stan Wawrinka comes in at what could be perceived as an intriguing 14/1 shot. His year has been the usual up-and-down with winning Dubai to losing at prices including 2/9, 1/4, 1/4 and 2/7.
As I write he’s gearing up for a final clash in Geneva as a 1/3 shot v Marin Cilic which I’m not sure is ideal preparation the day before a slam begins. It may be because of his poor showing in Rome, Madrid and Monte Carlo, making just one quarter-final.
I find the Swiss man difficult to trust and his 1st round opponent Lukas Rosol may also give him some trouble having taken a set off him this week as well as their meeting here last year.
Kei Nishikori (25/1) is another one who I find notorious in the reliability stakes, and while he’s made semi-semi-final-final-quarter of his last five tournaments, all five losses have been to Djokovic or Nadal, and here he’d have to beat Murray, Wawrinka, Djokovic/Nadal at a place where he has just one quarter-final to his name, that awful showing against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year.
Dominic Thiem is rightfully next in the betting, following up on his decent 2015 to be 2nd to only Djokovic for wins on tour this year including titles in Buenos Aires, Acapulco and possibly today in Nice as well as finishing runner-up in Munich.
He’s big off both wings, and that makes him a danger on this surface with the extra-time afforded to his ground strokes. However, his fitness concerns me over five sets and just generally playing a lot of matches in a short space of time, like a slam.
After winning in Argentina in February, he lost in the next tournament as a 1/6 shot in straight sets. After making the final of Munich, he lost in the opening round of Madrid in straight sets. Not what you would expect from the man with the 2nd most tour wins of the year.
Playing Nice immediately before Paris seems needless and potentially his undoing. He’s also in Djokovic’s half and same tough section as Nadal.
Regarding Nadal’s ‘tough’ quarter, it features Thiem as mentioned, Tsonga, David Goffin, Fabio Fognini, Philip Kohlschreiber, Joao Sousa and Kevin Anderson amongst others.
One other is wonderkid Alexander Zverev. Touted as a future number one, the former junior runner-up here was the youngest player for five years at just over 17 to clinch a Challenger trophy on the clay of Braunschweig in 2014. At 19 he’s the youngest player currently in the top 50 and has already beaten Marin Cilic, Goffin, Gilles Simon (x3), Ivan Dimitrov (x2) this year and takes on Thiem in the final of Nice.
He had match point against Nadal in Indian Wells and took the 1st set off Thiem in the semi’s of Munich. These two both feature in his mini-section and with Zverev going off at 11/8 against the likes of Goffin, 33/1 could prove value to win this quarter against players he knows he can perform well against.
Section three is arguably the weakest of them all and features players I’m happy to oppose. This is Wawrinka’s quarter, with Milos Raonic, Cilic, Simon and Dimitrov competing.
Raonic has stuttered since Australia and isn’t suited to the slow courts of Paris, Cilic has had a knee injury and is in a final on Sunday while Simon and Dimitrov have had horrible years.
I like the look of Frenchman Lucas Pouille who somehow found himself in the semi’s of Rome as well as the final of Bucharest. With wins over Ferrer (x2), Goffin (x2), Richard Gasquet and Ernests Gulbis he could find his way through a draw that isn’t that daunting.
French Open – Alexander Zverev to win 2nd quarter (33/1 Betfred)
French Open – Lucas Pouille to win 3rd quarter (33/1 Betfred)
French Open – Andy Murray/Serena Williams Double (16/1 Boylesports)