Having landed a 16/1 winner in Rotterdam, Andy Schooler returns to preview the three ATP Tour events which begin on Monday.
Rio Open Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (outdoor clay)
The same can be said about Mikhail Kukushkin in the bottom half, a player who is enjoying something of a renaissance.
He’s back up to 55th in the world rankings and closing in on his career-high of 46 which he achieved back in 2015.
A decent chunk of his points came from an impressive run to the semi-finals in Vienna at the end of 2018 where he beat Grigor Dimitrov, Andrey Rublev and Marton Fucsovics back to back in conditions which should be similar to the ones found in Sofia.
Having headed back indoors for last week’s Davis Cup tie, ‘Kuku’ duly lost just seven games in two straight-sets wins as he helped Kazakhstan qualify for the Finals.
He’ll arrive here in confident mood and 35/1 looks tasty.
Kukushkin should see off Laslo Djere in round one (he did win their only previous meeting) before a potential clash with Gael Monfils, although the man who appears to be made out of balsa wood has already seen his season disrupted by a hamstring injury so who know what you’ll get with him?
Tsitsipas could follow in the quarter-finals but a proven indoor veteran might just be the man capable of testing the youngster in these conditions.
I’m prepared to pay – a small amount at least – to find out.
Open 13 Provence Marseille, France (indoor hard)
The Gerflor surface in use in Marseille is regarded as one of the fastest on the ATP Tour these days and big servers should again go well this week.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nick Kyrgios and Juan Martin Del Potro have all won the title since the switch to Gerflor in 2012.
Tsonga, a three-time champion in Marseille, is back for more this year but at just 11/2 I am happy to avoid him on this occasion.
The 33-year-old has exceeded most expectations so far in 2019 having only returned to the tour in the autumn following long-term injury. He won in Montpellier two weeks ago but was undone fairly easily by Daniil Medvedev in Rotterdam, a result which showed he’s not at the same level he has been previously in his career.
I’m also prepared to take on the other two market leaders, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Borna Coric.
I mentioned last week how I’m not convinced by Tsitsipas on indoor hard and he duly lost to Damir Dzumhur first up. His first serve will be a weapon this week, no doubt, but the surface may not suit the rest of his game.
As for Coric, a player who performed well in slick conditions in Shanghai in the autumn, I’d be worried about his opening match which will come against wild card Ugo Humbert or Ernests Gublis.
Gulbis won here in 2014 and has shown flashes of the form which took him to the world’s top 10 that year, while Humbert is a rising star of French tennis and home players step up to the mark more often than not on home soil.
At time of writing, Humbert was playing in a Challenger final on indoor hard, showing he’s playing well in similar conditions, and if his serve is in good working order then he can certainly trouble Coric.
With the bottom quarter looking otherwise weak, it may well be worth throwing some small change at Humbert at 45/1.
However, my main bet comes in the top half of the draw with Filip Krajinovic the man to back at 25/1.
I picked out the Serb a fortnight ago for the Montpellier event, another tournament which creates pretty fast conditions, only for him to lose from two match points up against Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals.
That was frustrating, yes, but far from a disastrous result and if he plays to a similar level he’s capable of improving on last year’s quarter-final run when he lost in three sets to eventual runner-up Lucas Pouille.
Krajinovic famously made the final of the Paris Masters in 2017 in fast conditions and after an injury-hit 2018 the signs are he is rediscovering some form and looks set to climb the rankings again.
The 26-year-old is exactly the sort of player who could topple Tsitsipas (any meeting would be the Greek’s opening match of the tournament) and he looks worthy of support at 25s.
My preference is for him over 50/1 shot Peter Gojowczyk, whose attacking game has proved dangerous in similar conditions in the past.
Delray Beach Open Delray Beach, USA (outdoor hard)
This is another tournament where big serves have worked wonders in the past with Sam Querrey, Ivo Karlovic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic all having their name on the trophy in Florida.
Del Potro is among the favourites for this year’s renewal but backing him is taking something of a stab in the dark given the big Argentine hasn’t played since October due to a knee injury.
That’s a long absence and I think it’s asking too much for him to be winning titles in his first week back after so long away, especially given he’s a player who’s had so many issues with injuries. It could well be a tentative first few steps so a price like 7/2 is not for me in any shape or form.
Neither is John Isner screaming value as the 3/1 jolly – despite his huge delivery, he’s never made the final here, with the last of his semi-final appearances coming in 2014. He’s won one of three matches here since and last week missed six match points as he was beaten by Reilly Opelka in New York.
The player for me who fits the profile of big serving and aggression and is available at a tasty price is Taylor Fritz.
Sadly early 25/1 quotes have been snapped up but 18/1 is still worth backing, in my opinion.
Fritz beat former champ Querrey here last year en route to the last eight and he’s started this season in decent shape.
He beat Isner during a run to the quarter-finals in Auckland before defeating both Cameron Norrie and Gael Monfils at the Australian Open.
After a third-round loss in Melbourne he returned to America and duly won a Challenger in Newport Beach when he was hammering down the aces.
Fritz could face top seed Del Potro in the quarter-finals, although Delpo may first need to see off ace machine and New York finalist Opelka.
Both Fritz and Opelka have the big-serve weapon which won’t give the returning Argentine much rhythm and look the sort of players who he will struggle against this week.
It would be amiss not to mention Fritz’s first-round foe Mackenzie McDonald, a player who will have his backers at a whopping 100/1.
The Florida resident has also made a strong start to 2019, reaching a Challenger final in Dallas having beaten Andrey Rublev and taking Marin Cilic to four sets in Australia.
He knows how to play on a fast court – he made the Wimbledon last 16 last summer – but Fritz is 3-0 up on the head-to-head at all levels so he’s the man for me.
In the bottom half, it may be worth taking a chance on Andreas Seppi.
The Italian is in the third quarter, alongside defending champion Frances Tiafoe, but he’s been playing well, as he often does at the start of the year, and 33/1 is certainly tempting.
Seppi made the final in Sydney last month before taking out seed Steve Johnson at the Australian Open, where he made round three and lost in a five-set nail-biter to Tiafoe.
A move indoors wasn’t to his liking, although losing in three sets to eventual finalist Monfils last week in Rotterdam was no disgrace, and he’ll relish the sun on his back once more.