We all need a bit of normality in our lives right now. So tennis fans can take solace from the fact that the claycourt season will begin this coming week.
Unlike 2020, it’s in its usual calendar slot and a full lead-in to the French Open at Roland Garros is on the schedule with the marquee stop-offs in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome offering plenty to look forward to.
I always feel the nuances of claycourt tennis mean this is a good time to take a look into the ante-post markets for Roland Garros, ones which often change considerably from the time the players step onto the red dirt to the first ball in Paris.
There are sure to be many players welcoming a return to the clay – others not so much – and the layers may have put too much weight on results on hardcourts since the start of the season.
In this column, I’ll take a look ahead to the clay season, one which starts with events in Marbella, Cagliari, Charleston and Bogota on Monday, looking for some potential value for that French Open which is due to begin on May 23.
In an era which has seen Rafael Nadal win 13 French Open titles, seeking ante-post value has often proved a fruitless task.
He’s already the even-money favourite to make it 14 in 2021.
Frankly it would be a surprise were he not to win a couple of the Masters 1000 events which lie on the road to Roland Garros, while he’s also due back in Barcelona, effectively the home tournament of the Mallorcan, one he’s won 11 times.
If that’s the case, Nadal may well go off a bit shorter although given he’s not played since the Australian Open due to a back issue, I’m not sure why anyone would really want to back him now.
Novak Djokovic (3/1) and Dominic Thiem (4/1), between them the runners-up in the last three years, will likely again be the biggest threats to Nadal.
Both are excellent claycourt players in their own right yet the world number one was demolished by Nadal in last year’s final, while Thiem certainly looks too short right now given his poor start to 2021. He’s admitted he’s in a “tough period” and while he aims to “reset” for the clay – his favourite surface – it may be easier said than done.
So is there a bet to be had at this stage?
To decide, we need to consider who is likely to perform well in the coming weeks.
Of the ‘chasing pack’ in the French Open market, Andrey Rublev is the one I believe has potential to shorten significantly.
The Russian has been something of a winning machine since the tour resumed last August. He captured titles in Hamburg (on clay), St Petersburg and Vienna at the back end of 2020 and has continued to improve in 2021, emerging as champion in Rotterdam.
The key to greater success for Rublev is earning more wins against his fellow top-10 players. Although, that said, he has already beaten Thiem on clay.
With confidence high heading into this part of the season and a game I feel transfers well to the surface, I can see the 28/1 about Rublev having disappeared by the time we’ve gone through Rome next month.
For those happy to take a punt on a long shot, I’ve also got two names for you.
I like what I’ve seen from Kei Nishikori in recent weeks as the Japanese continues his latest comeback from injury.
That sentence shows the risk involved whenever backing Nishikori in an ante-post market – his fitness is never guaranteed – but if you are prepared to put that to one side, there’s plenty to like about him at 125/1.
Nishikori can certainly play on clay. He’s a two-time winner of the aforementioned Barcelona tournament, while he’s also made Masters finals in both Monte Carlo and Madrid.
His record in Paris is also strong – he’s made the second week on six occasions, three times reaching the quarter-finals.
Nishikori made the last eight in both 2019 and 2017, while in 2018 he went out in the last 16. Last year he bowed out early, but given he’d hardly played in a year coming in, that can be excused.
In short, it usually takes a good player to beat Nishikori at Roland Garros and I can see some value in his current price.
I can say the same about Cristian Garin at 150/1.
The Chilean is a real claycourt specialist and is one of those players whom I feel the bookies are looking too much at his results away from the surface – he’s 2-5 since the tour’s resumption off the clay.
On it, he’s already won in Santiago – his fifth clay title in the past two years – and will have been looking ahead to this part of the year for some time.
Having linked up with Franco Davin in the off-season – the man who coached Juan Martin del Potro to the US Open title – I’m expecting Garin to return to winning ways once he hits the European clay.
The 2020 clay stats had Garin in the top 15 for service games won, top 10 for first-serve points won and top six for return games won.
Given all that, it’s not hard to suggest there could be some value in backing Garin each way at 150s.
Since the Nadal era of domination of Roland Garros began in 2005, there have been just four winners of the men’s title.
In the same time period, no fewer than 12 different women have lifted the trophy.
Many have done so at a big price – think Francesca Schiavone, Li Na, Jelena Ostapenko and, last year, Iga Swiatek – so this market looks worth exploring.
Trading departments have wanted Swiatek onside ever since her 2020 triumph and she remains favourite to defend her title.
But Swiatek has won just one title since and 4/1 looks short enough.
Cases can be made to suggest those following her in the market could all represent a spot of value.
Simona Halep (5/1) has been the most consistent claycourter for the past few years, while Naomi Osaka (7/1) is the best player in the world right now – if she can figure out how make the most of her game on the clay (something she’s yet to do) her price will look big.
I’d suggest only Osaka has played better than Garbine Muguruza, a former champion in Paris, in 2021 so her 8/1 could appeal, while 10/1 about 2019 winner and current world number one Ash Barty is another price with potential, particularly given she has shown some of her best tennis in Miami in recent days.
However, I’m not sure that section of the market will change too much over the coming weeks with my expectation being that Halep and Swiatek will probably swap places.
At this point I’d prefer to back someone at a bigger price such as Maria Sakkari.
The Greek, coached by Briton Tom Hill, has been on an upward curve for the past two years, albeit with the obvious interruptions.
In the last ‘proper’ clay campaign, Sakkari won in Rabat and made the semis in Rome. She also beat Kiki Bertens – an excellent player on this surface – in Charleston.
She used last year’s pandemic-enforced break to focus on become a more aggressive player.
“I think one of the things that really helped me is that I realised that my ball is pretty heavy,” Sakkari told WTA Insider recently. “I have a lot of power and I’ve been using it the right way, but up until last year, I couldn’t really control my power.”
Her strong serve has been part of that improvement – her first-serve points won percentage is up seven points since August’s return to play.
Sakkari’s 2021 began with a run to the semis in Abu Dhabi where she beat both Muguruza and Sofia Kenin but she was then disrupted by travelling on one of the ‘COVID planes’ to Australia. Two weeks in hard quarantine halted her progress.
But she was back on top form in Miami where she became the first player in a year to defeat Australian and US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
Sadly that’s meant her odds for Roland Garros have been slashed from 50/1 to 25/1 in recent days. Clearly the best value has gone, although the Greek may well shorten further given I’d expect good results from her as the tour heads through the big clay events in Charleston, Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome.
Another player from the same area of the market worth considering is Belgian Elise Mertens.
She’s enjoyed consistent results in 2021, winning in Melbourne, reaching the last 16 of the Australian Open, making the semis in Dubai and the fourth round in Miami, losing only to Osaka.
A player who was runner-up to Halep in Prague last season and made the quarter-finals in Rome won’t be fazed by the move onto the clay and her 33/1 price also has the potential to be cut over the next month.