Premier League Matchday 35: Tricky Away Trip For Manchester United
Indian Wells, USA (outdoor hard)
February was a decent month for this column, featuring 16/1 and 18/1 winners and also having 20/1 and 12/1 shots placed.
However, a word of warning: history suggests it may be a tad difficult finding big-priced success at the opening Masters 1000 tournament of the season, which gets under way on Thursday.
Since Roger Federer’s first of five wins in 2004, the event has been dominated by the sport’s Big Three – Federer, Novak Djokovic (also a five-time champion) and Rafael Nadal (winner on three occasions).
The only players to have broken their stranglehold in the last 15 years have been Ivan Ljubicic in 2010 and Juan Martin Del Potro last year – and even he should have lost with Federer blowing three championship points.
The Big Three are again the top three in the betting this time around with Djokovic just 23/20 following his superb displays at the Australian Open. Nadal, narrowly beaten by Nick Kyrgios last week in Acapulco, is a 9/2 chance with Federer at 11/2.
If Djokovic plays as he did in Melbourne, it will be very hard to stop him and his manner of victory in the final against Nadal could well have left scars on the Spaniard.
Djokovic has avoided the other two in the draw and won’t be able to meet either until the final.
The best chance of him failing to make that match will probably come early on. It should be remembered he was rocking for a bit against Daniil Medvedev in Melbourne and in this best-of-three format, there is less room for error.
There’s certainly a tricky test lying in store in round three (given he has a bye, that would be Djokovic’s second match) in the form of Nick Kyrgios, the man who beat him here two years ago.
The polarising Australian produced some of his best tennis in Acapulco last week, building on his defeat of Nadal to claim the title.
Whether such a high-profile success will finally galvanise him mentally is another matter though, while Kyrgios’ ailing body is another reason to question his ability to back it all up here.
Some will take a chance on him at 33/1 but personally I still have concerns about his focus and am happy to look elsewhere.
When seeking alternatives to the obvious names here, the conditions need to be considered.
The desert setting means the balls are quick through the dry air but the Plexipave court surface is a slow one and encourages the balls to kick up fairly high.
This set-up tends to favour the big-hitters, who are able to win plenty of points off their strong serve and also hit winners through the court off the ground.
One player who certainly fits that bill is Milos Raonic – and the tournament’s history shows it.
On his last four visits, he’s made one final (2016), two semi-finals (2018 and 2015) and one quarter-final (2014). He missed out in 2017 due to injury.
I highlighted the big Canadian’s chances in Dubai last week only for him to flop in round one but that doesn’t change the fact he played well at the Australian Open, crushing Alex Zverev before losing in the last eight.
He clearly loves it here where the conditions are very good for his game and I believe he’s worth taking a chance on again.
Raonic is in the weakest quarter – the second being the only one not to feature a Big Three member.
Acapulco runner-up Zverev is the man seeded to reach the semis but he’s still struggling with his consistency at the biggest events.
The German could meet Raonic in the last 16 and if they do the latter will carry a 2-1 lead on their head-to-head into the clash.
Stefanos Tsitsipas and Kevin Anderson, who hasn’t played in almost two months due to injury, are other threats in this section but it is Raonic who has the course form and he could well be the one to take advantage should Djokovic falter.
Down in the bottom half, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Federer and Nadal make the last four – Federer won in Dubai last week, while Nadal didn’t lose serve in his loss to Kyrgios, who saved nine of 10 break points and three match points to show how tight the margins can be in this game. Essentially both are playing well.
However, neither man’s price is particularly attractive and in keeping with my traditional approach, I’d much rather try to find some value from further down the market.
I’ll start by backing John Isner at 100/1.
He’s another player with a game close to ideal for these conditions. The American does not have as good a record here as Raonic but he did make the final in 2012 and the semis two years later.
More recently he’s lost to Gael Monfils twice, Djokovic and, in a final-set tie-break, Kei Nishikori. All those results are forgivable.
This year Isner is in a good part of the draw. While he’s in Nadal’s quarter, his route to the last eight looks a fairly smooth one with the seeds in his section being the out-of-sorts Karen Khachanov, Pablo Carreno Busta and clay specialist Guido Pella.
Isner hasn’t been at his best this season so far but he’s still made semis in New York and Acapulco in the last few weeks, blowing six match points in the former and losing in a final-set breaker to Kyrgios in the latter.
It should also be remembered he arrived in Miami last March struggling for form and departed as the champion.
Isner’s serve is his major weapon and usually helps him win plenty of tie-breaks. However, so far this year he has a losing record in them (7-9) which goes some way to explaining why he’s not had better results.
Given the 33-year-old is ranked second for service games won, third in first-serve points won (and he gets more first serves in than any other player) and sixth for second-serve points won, you’d imagine he’ll be turning that record around soon and this looks a good place for it to happen.
Finally, a punt on 150/1 shot Kyle Edmund is worth considering.
The Briton’s season so far has been disrupted by injury and illness but he returned to action in a Challenger Tour event at this very venue last week and duly won it, so he’s bedded in well.
He also has a big serve and huge forehand, weapons which could potentially carry him far in Indian Wells.
Edmund could meet Federer in the last 16, although the Swiss may first have to deal with Stan Wawrinka, who is beginning to rediscover some of his best form.
Before that the Briton has no-one in his path he should truly fear. Admittedly a potential opener against Frances Tiafoe could be tough but the American has been struggling of late, winning just one of his last five matches.
It’s a long shot, but we like those, and it’s certainly not without merit.
Milos Raonic each-way – 33/1
John Isner each-way – 100/1
Kyle Edmund each-way – 150/1