Premier League Matchday 35: Tricky Away Trip For Manchester United
Rafael Nadal won this tournament as an 18-year-old in 2005 and in the 13 editions that have followed, he’s added another 10 titles.
It’s a truly remarkable record, one which reflects his position as the greatest claycourt player of all time.
He’s back for more this year and priced up at 5/4 to make it a record 12th crown, the Spaniard will certainly tempt many to back him.
It’s a price I like but I’m not sure I can justify putting it up here, even if it could look like a steal in a week’s time.
The reason for that is Nadal was last seen on a match court in Indian Wells a month ago and having won his quarter-final, he then pulled out of a scheduled last-four clash with Roger Federer.
His long-standing knee problem was cited as the reason and that casts at least something of a doubt as we head into another claycourt season which Nadal is expected to dominate.
It’s an issue that’s been solved by rest in the past – indeed the man himself will often tell the media he knows how to manage the injury – and it’s significant that for all the problems he’s had with the joints in his career, he’s always been fit enough to play here.
I suspect Nadal’s fitness will be fine and that he’ll duly win another Monte Carlo title but without any inside knowledge I’m not prepared to tip him at such a price.
Instead, I’m seeking big-priced alternatives, particularly in the opposite half of the draw to Nadal.
That top section is led by Novak Djokovic, a player who has won two of three titles Nadal has failed to claim during his era of dominance here.
Djokovic has tested Nadal’s clay resolve more than anyone in the current decade but he arrives here on the back of two shock defeats at Indian Wells and Miami, losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber and Roberto Bautista Agut.
While you could hardly describe those two as no-marks, such results were certainly eye-opening.
Djokovic suggested both health and off-court distractions (tennis politics) had played their part and if that was the case, while he may have healed physically, I’d suggest the questions about his role in Chris Kermode’s departure as ATP president will keep coming this week.
The Serb certainly didn’t look the destructive player he was at the Australian Open and while the move onto the clay is a natural one for Nadal, that’s not so much the case with Djokovic and I feel he’ll likely need to work his way into the clay season this year. The second favourite is not for me.
Dominic Thiem, last year’s French Open runner-up, could well capitalise in this half but he’s just 6/1, while Stefanos Tsitsipas (20/1) also holds decent claims. He made the Barcelona final last season on clay and has continued to improve hugely since.
However, I’m instead going to chance Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at 100/1.
The Frenchman has a decent record here, having made two semi-finals and two quarter-finals in his last six visits.
Among his victims have been Federer, Pablo Carreno Busta, Fabio Fognini, David Goffin and Stan Wawrinka. That lot can play on clay, so while Tsonga may not be regarded as a claycourter, he knows how to win on the red dirt.
A crowd favourite (it’s worth pointing out here that the Monte Carlo Country Club is technically in France, not Monaco), he’s already bedded in on the clay having played in Marrakech last week, reaching the semi-finals.
He beat Kyle Edmund in Morocco and so will fancy his chances if the pair meet again in round two here.
Then could come a meeting with Djokovic and while he’d clearly start underdog in that one, he would be able to draw on memories of a fine display against the Serb at Roland Garros in 2012 when he held four match points before losing and also his 2014 demolition of him in Toronto.
Yes, it’s a long shot but the price reflects that.
Down in the bottom half of the draw, opposing Nadal is clearly risky but may be worth a few beans given his unknown injury status.
The third quarter looks by far the weakest of the draw with its leading seeds being Alex Zverev, who would struggle to buy a win at present, and Kei Nishikori, another player in miserable form in 2019.
Fabio Fognini, another seed in this section, has now lost his last five matches on clay, so I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see a big-priced semi-finalist emerge here.
Two rising stars catch the eye at big prices.
First, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who will likely be a real handful for Zverev if he beats a qualifier in round one.
The Canadian has long been touted as ‘the next big thing’ but made his genuine breakthrough during those recent Masters tournament in the USA.
He beat Tsitsipas in Indian Wells before qualifying in Miami and making a run all the way to the semi-finals, defeating three seeds, including Borna Coric, along the way.
While that all came on a hardcourt, ‘FAA’ had laid the foundations for those results on the clay of South America where followers of the Golden Swing will have already seen him perform well.
The 18-year-old beat strong clay opponents Christian Garin, Jaume Munar and Pablo Cuevas en route to the final in Rio and also made the quarter-finals the following week in Sao Paulo.
In short, he can play on this surface and with confidence high and the draw to his liking, 80/1 is worth a dabble.
Secondly, Hubert Hurkacz isn’t getting the respect he deserves, being chalked up at 500/1.
The Pole may not have had a week like Auger-Aliassime did in Miami but he’s still enjoyed some excellent results so far this season.
Thiem, Nishikori (twice), Denis Shapovalov and Lucas Pouille have all been beaten in 2019 and while the Pole must now bring his A game to the clay, it’s not exactly far-fetched to believe his rapid improvement can continue on this surface.
Hurkacz troubled Marin Cilic at Roland Garros last year, losing in four tight sets, and also won a Challenger title on the clay.
The giant 22-year-old possesses a strong serve and with the rest of his game far from shabby, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised were he to beat Coric in round one on Sunday and then Nishikori again in the third round.
If that happens, 500/1 will be a nice price to have on your coupon.
The Hurkacz-Coric match is one of just four taking place when the main draw begins on Sunday – as always, the tournament only really kicks into gear on Monday.
My suggestions are clearly all long shots and could easily fall early doors so it’s case of keeping stakes fairly small this week for me.
With Nadal, and to a lesser extent Djokovic, so dominant, these Masters 1000s on clay are notoriously difficult for value hunters and I’d prefer to save something back for better opportunities in the weeks ahead.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga each-way at 100/1
Felix Auger-Aliassime each-way at 80/1
Hubert Hurkacz each-way at 500/1