Sofia, Bulgaria (indoor hard)
A decent field, including man of the moment Stefanos Tsitsapas, has gathered in Sofia for this event but, as ever, I’m looking for potential value and I’m not seeing much at the top of the market.
Tsitsipas is, understandably following his semi-final run at the Australian Open, the favourite at but overall he’s got a pretty poor record on indoor hardcourts, although admittedly he did break his duck by capturing the Stockholm title towards the end of last year.
The Proflex surface here should be slower than in Melbourne, while I just wonder if the Greek’s heavy defeat at the hands of Rafael Nadal in the last four there may just have left a few scars and cast some doubts in his mind.
Both top seed Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev struggled during last week’s Davis Cup tie as Russia made much harder work of beating Switzerland than most expected. I’m happy to leave them at .
Of the leading quartet in the market, my preference would be for Roberto Bautista Agut. The solid Spaniard is a proven performer on a surface such as this. Indeed he won here in 2016 and was also a semi-finalist the following year.
His fighting qualities were on show in Melbourne where he was beaten in the last eight by Tsitsipas, although it should also be remembered he needed three five-set wins to reach that stage and might well have lost to Andy Murray in the very first round had the Briton been that little bit sharper.
At a tournament which was last year won by a big-priced outsider in Mirza Basic, I’ll instead have a couple of small-stakes each-way plays, one in each half of the draw.
First of all, 40/1 about last year’s runner-up Marius Copil looks tempting.
He simply loves playing indoors. As well as making the final here, Copil also finished runner-up in Basel later in the year, beating the likes of Alex Zverev and Marin Cilic along the way.
Prior to that, he had reached a host of Challenger finals indoors to prove his propensity for the conditions.
The Romanian possesses a strong first serve and it was that delivery which helped him to his finals last season – in Sofia he held serve 93 per cent of the time; in Basel it was up at 95 per cent.
Stan Wawrinka is an awkward first-round foe but notably he struggled with Milos Raonic’s big serve in Melbourne, losing three tie-breaks, while he’s also not got the best of records on indoor hard – just one of his career titles has come indoors.
The unreliable Fernando Verdasco could follow in round two, while Khachanov is Copil’s seeded quarter-final opponent.
Someone who has played so well indoors should not fear that run and he looks worth a small play.
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.